It’s a story as old as time: To lose weight, you need to move more and eat less. But figuring out how much more you need to move can be confusing. This is because the number of calories you need to burn per day to lose weight depends on many factors, including your weight loss goal, how much you eat, and how you burn those calories.
While losing weight is your primary goal, physical activity serves many health benefits, including better joint mobility, protection against chronic diseases, improved mood, and enhanced endurance. So, know that beyond burning calories, you’re doing your body a favor when you move more.
To lose 1 to 2 pounds per week, you need to burn 500 to 1,000 more calories than you eat each day or 3,500 to 7,000 calories per week.
How Do You Calculate Your Daily Calorie Burn?
According to Kansas State University, the total number of calories you burn in a day depends on things like your age, height and weight, muscle mass, and how much exercise you get.
There are several formulas for calculating your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE (more on that in a bit), but there is also a simpler method based solely on body weight. While not quite as accurate, it can give you a starting point to work with without having to do a lot of math:
- Daily calories burned: 15-16 per pound of body weight
- Calories needed for weight loss: 12-13 per pound of body weight
- Calories needed for weight gain: 18-19 per pound of body weight
To get a more exact idea of your TDEE, you need to know four things, per Kansas State:
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
Sometimes called basal metabolic rate (BMR), this is the total number of calories your body needs each day for only basic functions (think: breathing, blinking, etc.). In general, your RMR is higher if you are younger and have more muscle, but your genetics also play a role.
According to an April 2015 article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, RMR accounts for the largest portion (about 60 percent) of your TDEE.
To calculate your RMR, you can use the Harris-Benedict Equation or the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine:
- Men: 88.362 + (13.397 × weight in kg) + (4.799 × height in cm) – (5.677 × age in years)
- Women: 447.593 + (9.247 × weight in kg) + (3.098 × height in cm) – (4.330 × age in years)
Note that 1 kg is equal to 2.2 pounds, and 1 inch is 2.54 cm.
Mifflin-St Jeor Equation
- Men: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
- Women: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
TEF is the calories your body uses to digest, absorb, and store the nutrients in the foods you eat. Some foods have been shown to have a higher thermic effect than others, meaning your body burns more calories to process them. These include foods that are particularly high in protein and fiber.
TEF accounts for up to 10 percent of your TDEE, according to the article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
NEAT is the number of calories your body uses when doing daily activities such as brushing your teeth, washing dishes, and walking, according to an April 2015 article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. This number varies greatly from person to person and even from day to day, depending on your activity level.
Calories Burned During Exercise
How many calories you burn during a workout depends on how long and how intensely you exercise. According to the article in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the calories you burn during exercise along with NEAT make up 10 to 30 percent of your TDEE.
Calculate Your TDEE
Multiply your RMR by your activity level to get your estimated TDEE, per Kansas State:
Sedentary: BMR x 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
Lightly active: BMR x 1.375 (light exercise 1-3 days per week)
Moderately active: BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise 6-7 days per week)
Very active: BMR x 1.725 (hard exercise every day, or exercising twice per day)
Extra active: BMR x 1.9 (hard exercise two or more times per day, or training for a marathon, triathlon, etc.)
How to Calculate Your Calories for Weight Loss
To lose weight you need to do some simple math and create a calorie deficit based on your TDEE; This means you burn more calories than you consume.
- Find Your TDEE
First, calculate your total daily energy expenditure according to the formula above. This will give you your maintenance calories, or how many calories per day you need to maintain your current weight.
- Subtract 500 to 1,000 Calories
One pound of fat is about 3,500 calories, according to the Mayo Clinic. So if you want to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week (usually a healthy and sustainable goal), you need to burn 500 to 1,000 more calories than you consume each day or 3,500 to 7,000 calories per week.
You can achieve this calorie deficit by eating fewer calories, burning more calories through NEAT and exercise, or a combination of the two.
Weight loss stats display a food diary, and a fitness tracker can help you track the calories you eat and burn each day and stay on track with your weight loss goals.
- Adjust As Necessary
When you lose weight, you need to recalculate both your TDEE and how many calories you need to burn per day to continue losing weight.
You may be excited to make a splash in your weight loss journey, but losing weight gradually can help keep it off in the long run, according to the Mayo Clinic. Creating a serious calorie deficit (more than 500 to 1000 calories per day) is not recommended by most healthcare professionals. Typically, this rate is unsustainable and can lead to nutrient deficiencies, muscle loss, and a stalled metabolism.
How to Burn More Calories During Exercise
How many calories you burn in a workout depends on your size, the duration, and the intensity of the workout. For example, a 155-pound person walking 4 miles or doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity gymnastics — like jumping and push-ups — will burn 167 calories, but a 185-pound person will burn 200 calories. The same activities, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
During more vigorous activity, you burn more calories in less time. According to Harvard Health Publishing, a 155-pound person will burn 409 calories running 9 miles in 30 minutes, while a 185-pound person will burn 488 calories.
But these are all calorie approximations. Even gym machines like elliptical trainers and treadmills estimate how many calories you burn using a formula that is probably not entirely accurate, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Wearable fitness trackers probably won’t give an exact measurement either. While wearables are a pretty good way to measure your heart rate, their ability to track calories is often inaccurate, according to Stanford University Medicine.
However, exercising to save time is one way to make up for the inaccuracy of most calorie trackers. For example, if you tend to walk for 20 minutes each day, going up to 30 minutes will increase your total calorie burn.
Increasing the amount of time you exercise or the intensity of your exercise is a surefire way to increase your total calorie burn.
Is Cardio or Strength Training Better for Weight Loss?
Exercise helps burn calories and also preserves lean muscle mass while losing weight. If you cut calories without exercising, a quarter of every pound you lose comes from lean muscle mass.
Why is this important? Your muscle mass affects your metabolic rate (the rate at which your body burns calories). According to Harvard Health Publishing, increasing your muscle mass can boost your metabolism, which means your body will burn more calories just doing daily activities.
You can burn about 100 calories per half-hour strength training session, but reap countless additional benefits. Ten weeks of resistance training can increase your lean muscle mass by 3 pounds, reduce your body fat by 4 pounds, and increase your metabolic rate by 7 percent, according to research published in the July 2012 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports.
On the other hand, regular cardio exercise can help improve your heart health and increase your daily calorie expenditure. Solution? A balanced training program that includes both cardio and strength training is probably your best bet.
How Many Calories Should You Eat to Lose Weight?
Exercise helps you lose weight but is more effective when combined with dietary measures. Researchers who followed the weight loss process of more than 400 postmenopausal women for a year found that a combination of exercise and diet worked best for weight loss, according to a study in Obesity in August 2012.
The study reported that those who exercised alone lost 2.4 percent of their body weight, while those who dieted alone lost 8.5 percent. Dieters and exercisers lost 10.8 percent, making the combination strategy the most effective.
You don’t need to burn 500 to 1,000 extra calories a day to lose weight while also cutting calories. The combination of less food and more movement also helps create a deficit. For example, eat 250 calories less than the number of calories you need to maintain your weight and work to burn 250 calories a day and you’ll lose one pound a week.