Whether you're an athlete or lead a mostly sedentary lifestyle of prepping for your next Netflix binge, your body burns calories 24/7. Nailing down how many calories the "average" person burns daily is nigh impossible given the huge variations, but calorie breakdowns provide a rough estimate.
Variations in body weight, metabolism and activity level make it nearly impossible to project an "average" number of calories burned, but the gulf between the expended calories of active and sedentary people is significant.
The Basics of Burning Calories
The good news is that there's heaps of data that, when put together, gives a pretty good idea of the estimated number of daily calories burned by people from all different walks of life — dive in with enough enthusiasm, and you might just burn a few yourself (because even thinking hard burns a couple).
Though a lifetime's worth of reading Nutrition Facts labels might have you thinking otherwise, a calorie is actually a unit of energy, not a component of your food. A single calorie is the amount of energy required to heat 1 liter of water by 1 degree centigrade. One pound of body fat can generate about 3,500 calories worth of energy, which is why you often hear that burning 3,500 calories is the general rule of thumb for losing a pound.
You know that you burn calories when you're pumping away on the elliptical, but even when you're sedentary, your body requires the expenditure of energy just to function. That's why the expenditure of calories falls into three basic categories:
- Resting metabolic rate: Your RMR is the amount of energy your body uses to maintain the baseline functions required for survival (keeping your organs and physiological systems going, basically). This is also called your basal metabolic rate, and it accounts for a whopping 60 to 75 percent of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
- Thermic effect of food: Your body uses energy to convert food into more energy (or to make sure it's stored as fat for later use). That energy expenditure itself is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF) and accounts for about 10 percent of your TDEE.
- Thermic effect of physical activity: You've probably guessed this one already. Yes, the thermic effect of physical activity (TEPA) is essentially all other sorts of energy you expend, including the energy you spend on physical activity and even the energy your body requires to cool down from that exercise. TEPA makes up about 15 to 30 percent of your total daily energy expenditure.
TEPA itself falls into two categories: Planned exercise and all other sorts of non-exercise physical exertion, from doing the laundry to standing up from your chair (or even the calories you burn from lying down).
Estimates for Sedentary Lifestyles
A sedentary lifestyle has a lot less activity variation than an active lifestyle, so it's a little easier to get a rough estimate of how many calories a sedentary person might burn over the course of a single day.
All you really have to do is investigate the low-key activities that make up a sedentary day and calculate how many calories they burn for the average person. Keep in mind, this person is purely hypothetical.
First up, Harvard Health Publishing estimates that you burn about 40 to 55 calories per hour sleeping. Take the middle ground of 50 calories and say the sedentary person gets eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour period — that's 400 calories.
Now assume this sedentary person has an eight-hour work shift that has him sitting pretty much the whole time. The U.S. National Library of Medicine says that a 170-pound person burns about 139 calories per hour of sitting, which tacks on an additional 1,488 calories to this total.
Using calculations from the American Council on Exercise, fill this 170-pound person's remaining eight hours with one hour of housework (231 calories), three hours of standing throughout the day (532 calories), one hour of lying down (77 calories) and three hours of sitting quietly watching TV (231 calories). That gets you to this (very) ballpark estimate:
- Eight hours of sleeping: 400 calories
- Eight hours of sitting at work: 1,112 calories
- Three hours of standing: 532 calories
- One hour of housework: 231 calories
- One hour of lying down: 77 calories
- Three hours of watching TV: 231 calories
- 2 miles walked throughout the day: 200 calories
- Total estimated calories burned: 2,783
Estimates for Active Lifestyles
While an active lifestyle naturally has lots more activity variation than a sedentary lifestyle, you can use the same sources but tweak them for the daily schedule for your imaginary 170-pound active person.
In contrast to your sedentary friend, say this person splits her time between sitting and standing at work, is a little more active at home and gets in a healthy amount of cardio and strength training during this particular day. Likewise, the active person walks a hearty 10,000 steps (about 5 miles) throughout the day:
- Eight hours of sleeping: 400 calories
- Four hours of sitting, Four hours of standing at work: 556 calories, 709 calories
- Three additional hours of standing: 532 calories
- One hour of housework: 231 calories
- One hour of yardwork: 308 calories
- 1/2 hour of running (6 mph pace): 385 calories
- 1/2 hour of intense weightlifting: 231 calories
- Two hours relaxing at home (not standing): 154 calories
- 5 miles walked throughout the day: 500 calories
- Total estimated calories burned: 4,006
Quite a difference from the sedentary person, right? If that sounds like a lot (and it definitely is), consider this for a little perspective: According to 2016 estimates from the National Public Radio, Olympic endurance athletes torch up to 8,000 calories of energy per day during their pre-event training, while those who play team sports (like soccer or basketball) can clock in at up to 4,500 calories. Weightlifters can burn up to 6,000 daily.
BMR, Calorie Intake and Expenditure
As large as those very hypothetical estimates sound, keep in mind that your resting metabolic rate accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of your daily caloric expenditure (as per the Utah Department of Health) — if weight loss is your goal, you won't slim down by sleeping and sitting. Variations exist here, too, as men typically have a higher RMR than women. RMR is also affected by factors such as weight, height and age.
To get an idea of your RMR, you can use the Harris-Benedict formula, which works like this:
- For men: 66 + (6.3 x body weight in lbs.) + (12.9 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years)
- For women: _655 + (4.3 x weight in lbs.) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years) _
It is then recommended that your daily caloric intake needs are 1.2 times the amount of your RMR if you're sedentary, 1.375 times if you're lightly active, 1.55 times if you're moderately active, 1.725 times if you're very active, or 1.9 times if you're extra active.
So assuming that our imaginary 170-pound sedentary person is a 30-year-old man who is 6 feet tall, his RMR would come out to about 1,862 calories and he should be taking in roughly 2,234 calories per day to maintain his weight.
About Nonexercise Activity
Even on a sedentary day, your body's metabolism — the chemical process that determines how quickly you work through calories and fat — burns energy to keep you going. But the calories burned during nonexercise activity vary quite a bit, depending on a variety of factors.
Among the simplest variables is the act of standing, which helps increase your daily caloric expenditure — not to mention how it helps negate the other health hazards that come with too much sitting. The enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL) also factors in, as LPL is a crucial part of converting fat to energy.
While staying sedentary decreases LPL production, keeping your body moving throughout the day boosts LPL levels and, as a result of that, increases overall calorie burn.
As obvious as it may sound, the simple act of putting a little more oomph into your daily activities also increases your daily nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is a fancy way of saying the energy your body expends during nonexercise activity. The more intense the NEAT, the more calories you'll burn.
Use These Tools
Some days, you might not crush a workout, yet your fully checked-off to-do list hasn't exactly made for what you'd call a sedentary day. With all the variables in mind, you'll need a little help if you want to accurately calculate how many calories you actually burn in a day, no matter where you fall on the scale of sedentary to active. Fortunately, there are plenty of free tools online to help you do just that:
The American Council on Exercise's Physical Activity Calorie Counter just needs your body weight, the type of the activity and how much time you spent on said activity to create a calories-burned estimate of everything from standing at the office to playing water polo.
Related to all these calorie calculations, with Mayo Clinic's Calorie Calculator, you simply type in your age, height, weight, sex and activity level to estimate the number of calories you need to take in each day to maintain your current weight.
Similarly, consider these estimates for calories burned performing one hour of the following common activities — which aren't structured exercise but aren't quite sedentary, either — for a 150-pound person, per Mayo Clinic:
- One hour of gardening: 272 calories
- One hour of heavy cleaning (like washing windows or spring cleaning your garage): 238 calories
- One hour of push-mowing the lawn: 340 calories
- One hour of raking: 272 calories
- One hour of sweeping, vacuuming or mopping: 224 to 258 calories
- One hour of painting a wall: 306 calories
- One hour of shoveling snow: 408 calories
- One hour of walking the dog: 238 calories
- American Council on Exercise: "Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: 6 Things to Know"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Burning Calories Without Exercise"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus: "Ways to Burn More Calories Every Day"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Simple Math Equals Easy Weight Loss"
- American Council on Exercise: "Physical Activity Calorie Counter"
- Mayo Clinic: "Calorie Calculator"
- National Public Radio: "How Many Calories Do Olympic Athletes Need?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Burn Extra Calories With Daily Activities"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Mental Work Requires Physical Energy: Self-Control Is Neither Exception nor Exceptional"
- Utah Department of Health: Check Your Health: "How Many Calories Do You Need?"