Mathematically, if you burn 500 calories a day, it should take you a little more than two months to lose 10 pounds. That's a very rough estimate, though — there are a lot of factors that can affect how much weight you lose and how quickly it comes off, many of which have nothing to do with calories.
Here, we'll take a look at how to create a calorie deficit and track your daily calorie burn, how to burn 500 calories a day through exercise and how to adjust your eating habits and other factors to aid in weight loss.
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Talk to your doctor before you make any big changes to your exercise routine or diet. They can help you determine if your weight-loss plan is healthy and appropriate for you based on your medical history, health status and medications.
How to Create a Calorie Deficit to Lose 10 Pounds
If your goal is to burn 500 calories a day to lose 10 pounds, you need to make sure you're creating a calorie deficit. One important factor in the weight-loss equation is burning more calories than you take in (i.e. creating a calorie deficit), by increasing your physical activity and/or cutting back on the number of calories you eat, per the Mayo Clinic.
(This isn't the only factor, though. Stress, sleep quality and other factors play a role in how effective your calorie burn is — we'll discuss those a bit later.)
To set yourself up for weight loss, you'll need to burn 500 calories more than you're taking in. That means you first need to figure out how many calories you need to maintain your current weight (your "maintenance calories"), and make sure you're not taking in (eating or drinking) more than that. Then you'll need to burn 500 calories more than you normally do each day.
Your maintenance calories depend on many different factors, including your age, sex, weight and activity level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To give you a rough idea, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend people assigned female at birth (AFAB) eat 1,600 to 2,000 calories and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) eat 2,000 to 2,400 calories per day to maintain their weight.
To keep track of your calories, consider downloading a calorie-counter app, many of which can help you calculate your maintenance calories and keep tabs on your food and physical activity.
How Many Calories Are in a Pound of Fat?
You may have heard that 3,500 calories equals about 1 pound of fat. With that number in mind, you would need to burn an additional 35,000 calories to lose 10 pounds of fat. If you burn 500 calories per day, that means it would take you about 70 days (a little over two months) to lose 10 pounds.
However, this kind of thinking is oversimplified and somewhat outdated, per the Mayo Clinic. Weight loss is different for everyone and can be influenced by factors like your genetics, hormones, sleep habits and much more.
That's why cutting or burning 500 calories a day may not lead to the same rate of weight loss for everyone. While one person may lose 10 pounds in two months, it might take someone else twice that amount of time, even if both people are cutting or burning the same amount of calories each day.
Is Burning 500 Calories a Day Good?
When your aim is weight loss, cutting or burning 500 calories a day is a good general goal, but it may not be right for everyone. Working with your doctor and/or a personal trainer or registered dietitian can give you a more complete picture of your health and help you determine an appropriate and sustainable daily calorie goal (and overall weight-loss goal) based on factors like your age, sex, fitness level and health status.
How to Track Your Calorie Burn
If you want to burn 500 calories a day through exercise, tracking your calorie burn is crucial to stay on track. You can do so on your own using a food diary and a lot of math, or you can use these tools to help:
- Calorie-counting apps: Apps like MyFitnessPal or Argus (both free to download) can help you monitor your calorie intake and log your physical activity, and you can stay on top of other healthy habits and markers of health, too.
- Fitness trackers: Wearable devices like the FitBit Versa ($149.95, FitBit.com) or Apple Watch (From $329, Apple.com or Amazon) can track your steps and exercise and calculate the calories you burn based on your age, weight, heart rate and more.
Exercises That Burn 500 Calories
You can burn 500 calories a day through exercise, but this is not an easy number to reach for most people. Burning this number of calories each day will require a substantial time commitment and likely be both physically and mentally challenging.
With that said, you can burn 500 calories a day by doing just about any activity — it all depends on intensity and duration — but exercises that are more cardio-intensive (think: running, climbing stairs or anything that gets your heart pumping quickly) will burn more calories in less time. And keep in mind that your current weight factors into how many calories you burn during exercise.
- Circuit training (like HIIT): 52 minutes if you weigh about 160 pounds; 33 minutes if you weigh about 250 pounds
- Running (12-minute pace): 52 minutes if you weigh about 160 pounds; 33 minutes if you weigh about 250 pounds
- Stair climbing: 70 minutes if you weigh about 160 pounds; 44 minutes if you weigh about 250 pounds
- Swimming: 70 minutes if you weigh about 160 pounds; 44 minutes if you weigh about 250 pounds
- Biking (10 to 12 mph): 70 minutes if you weigh about 160 pounds; 44 minutes if you weigh about 250 pounds
- Brisk walking (4 mph): 103 minutes if you weigh about 160 pounds; 66 minutes if you weigh about 250 pounds
Another thing to keep in mind: Simply exercising more likely isn't the best way to go about losing weight.
A June 2012 review in Obesity Reviews investigated why people don't lose as much weight when they exercise without making dietary changes. The authors reviewed numerous studies and identified a number of factors to explain the weight loss discrepancies, including change in metabolic rate and a decrease in overall activity outside of exercise. They concluded that people don't lose as much weight through exercise alone because they don't burn as many calories as predicted, and they tend to compensate for the calories they burned by eating more.
So, if you want to lose 10 pounds, you may want to both increase your exercise and make dietary changes to decrease your calorie intake, per the CDC.
It can be a tricky balance to get the nutrition you need to support both strenuous exercise and weight loss. Consider working with your doctor or a registered dietitian to help you get the balance right.
How to Adjust Your Nutrition for Weight Loss
When it comes to food, keep in mind that calories are only one aspect to consider. Food fuels your body for exercise, so it's important to choose nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods over nutrient-poor, high-calorie foods.
Some examples of low-calorie foods that pack a nutritional punch include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Tempeh and tofu
- Fish like tuna, salmon and halibut
- Chicken breast
- Plain, low-fat Greek yogurt and low-fat milk
If your goal is to cut 500 calories a day through dietary changes, consider the following tips:
- Nix sugary beverages like soda and juice, which pack a lot of calories. Opt for water instead.
- Avoid fried and fast food.
- Cook at home instead of dining out or ordering takeout.
- Limit processed foods like baked goods, packaged snack foods and frozen meals. Choose whole foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains (like oatmeal or brown rice) and lean proteins instead.
- Eat small, frequent meals (four to five per day) that contain a serving of lean protein (such as white meat chicken or turkey, fish, shellfish, egg white or low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese) and low-starch veggies, such as leafy greens, per the Obesity Medicine Association.
- Limit or avoid added sugars in foods, per the Obesity Medicine Association.
Other Factors That Affect Weight Loss
On paper, weight loss comes down to burning more calories than you take in. But in reality, it's a bit more complicated than that, mostly because every body responds differently to calorie restriction and exercise.
Even if you're burning 500 calories a day, your ability to lose weight or rate of weight loss will depend on factors such as:
- Medical conditions: Thyroid issues, PCOS, diabetes and Cushing syndrome are just a few conditions that make it harder to lose weight, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- Medications: Anti-seizure meds, antidepressants and corticosteroids can make weight loss more challenging, per the NIH.
- Body composition: The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn each day, according to an April 2016 study in the International Journal of Exercise Science — so even when two people weigh the same, they may burn calories differently depending on their body composition
- Sleep quality: Sleep and weight loss are tightly linked — not getting enough sleep (that's seven to nine hours per night for adults) can affect your hunger hormones, decrease your energy for exercise and even alter the way your body stores fat
- Stress: Chronic stress can affect your weight by sapping your energy for exercise, messing with your sleep quality, slowing your metabolism and more.
Burning 500 calories a day is one way to lose weight, but it may not be the most effective way. In addition to getting regular exercise, make healthy changes to your nutrition and address other lifestyle factors like getting more sleep and managing your stress to help with healthy weight loss.
If you make these changes and still struggle to lose weight, consider working with your doctor or an obesity medicine specialist who can help you create a weight-loss plan that takes into account your age, fitness level and medical history, among other factors.
- Obesity Reviews: "Why Do Individuals Not Lose More Weight from an Exercise Intervention at a Defined Dose? An Energy Balance Analysis"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Balancing Food and Activity for Healthy Weight"
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- Calorie Control Council: "Get Moving! Calculator"
- National Institutes of Health: "What Causes Obesity and Overweight?"
- International Journal of Exercise Science: "Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training"
- Obesity Medicine Association: "How to Lose Weight"