From the exercises that burn the most calories to how to jack up your energy expenditure, this handbook answers all of your ~burning~ questions.

By Selene Yeager
March 13, 2020
MoMo Productions/Getty

First things first: Burning calories should not be the only thing on your mind when you exercise or perform any movement that you enjoy. Find reasons to be active that are not merely about calories in vs calories out, and we promise you'll be happier and more satisfied with your "workout" in the end.

Now, if you are still interested in exercise and calorie-burn for whatever your health or fitness goal may be, there's definitely still merit to that. After all, if you don't know how many calories you're burning, you don't know what kind of food to refuel all the hard work.

It may come as a surprise but a HIIT workout that hurts so good and leaves your shirt drenched in sweat isn't the only time you burn calories. As you sit here reading this article, you're burning about one calorie per minute. That number increases each time you stand, walk, or run to grab the phone because your body needs more energy to get the job done.

The problem: It's easy to overestimate how many calories you're burning, especially if you aren't strapped into your activity tracker 24/7. In a small study of moderately active, average weight individuals, researchers found that participants overestimated their energy expenditure (i.e calories burned) during exercise by three- to four-fold. (Related: How Many Calories Are You *Really* Eating?)

And an accurate idea of energy expenditure is especially important if you're trying to lose weight, as you lose about one pound for every 3,500 calories you torch above your usual weekly intake. To help you accomplish your health goals, read up on all the nitty-gritty details about calories and the exercises that burn the most calories.

Factors that Determine How Much Energy You Use

Staying alive takes a lot of energy. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the breathing, blinking, and thinking you do each day—uses up about 60 to 70 percent of your total daily calories. To figure out your BMR, follow this simple formula: Your weight (in pounds)/2.2 X 24.

Though your BMR is genetic, it's not set in stone, meaning you can burn more calories with a few changes. (Try these simple tricks to burn more calories throughout the day.)

  • Make some muscle: At rest, muscle burns more calories than fat tissue. Regular strength training can boost your metabolism 7 to 10 percent--about 100 calories a day.
  • Feed the flames: Eating too few calories can backfire because you're more likely to lose metabolism-revving lean muscle, not fat. Experts recommend reducing your daily intake by no more than 1,000 calories from what you need to maintain your weight. For most women, that means not dipping below about 1,100 calories a day.
  • Enjoy a jolt: Caffeinated coffee can be a metabolism booster, as can green tea. The result isn't dramatic—just a few calories a day—but every little bit adds up.

Calories Aren't the Only Measure of Energy Expenditure

Scientists measure exercise intensity in METs (metabolic equivalents), with one MET being defined as the energy it takes to sit quietly. Moderate-intensity activities have you working hard enough to burn off three to six times as much energy per minute as you do when you are sitting, aka exercises with 3 to 6 METs. TL;DR: the more intense your workout, the more energy you burn per minute, and the higher the MET. (Here's the one reason why you might want to stop counting calories.)

"For weight-loss and health benefits, you should do activities of at least three METs an hour—enough to burn about 200 calories an hour—most days of the week," says Barbara Ainsworth, Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor at Arizona State University who helped develop the Compendium of Physical Activity, a comprehensive calorie-burn database. As a general rule, your MET intensity rises as you:

  • Move your muscles: Your lean tissue is your engine; the more you use, the more fuel you burn.
  • Pull your own weight: Stand-up activities like running burn more calories at a higher level than those in which your weight is supported, such as cycling. The trade-off: You can usually do the sit-down activity longer to make up the difference.
  • Work harder: A strong-stroked swimmer burns more calories than one's idly paddling by, walking uphill uses more energy than strolling flat sidewalks, and going faster is a surefire way to turn up the torch

Fact and Fiction On Exercise and Calories

Myth #1. Mile per mile, running and walking burn the same amount of calories.

Not even close. "Running is a more energetic activity because you're jumping off the ground with each stride," says David Swain, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science and director of the Wellness Institute and Research Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Per mile, running burns about twice as many calories as walking.

Myth #2. Low-intensity workouts burn more calories

When it comes to these exercises that burn the most calories, slow and steady doesn't win the race. "Women think low-intensity exercise burns the fat from their hips. That's not the case," says Annette Lang, a New York City-based private trainer and owner of Annette Lang Education Systems. "If you work out easy for 15 minutes and burn 100 calories, 75 percent may be from fat. If you work out really hard for 15 minutes and burn 200 calories, only 50 percent may be from fat, but you've burned more fat overall and twice as many calories." (Related: How to Burn 500 Calories in 30 Minutes)

Myth #3. You can't trust those numbers on the treadmill.

Years ago, the calorie-burn indicators on some popular gym machines were reported to be notoriously inaccurate. "These days, they do a pretty good job, especially if you program in your weight," says metabolism researcher Gary Hunter, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Myth #4. You burn more in the cold.

It's true that you incinerate calories when you're shivering. But once you warm up during your workout, you won't use more energy just because it's chilly outside. That means you won't find a cold, brisk walk on the list of exercises that burn the most calories. (But can the season affect how many calories you burn?)

Myth #4. High-calorie-burning exercises are best.

"For many women, what burns the most is the activity they can sustain for a long time, like power walking, hiking, or bicycling," says Ainsworth.

Exercises That Typically Burn the Most Calories

In general, the harder you exercise, the longer your body will burn calories, even after you've left the gym or studio. If you're looking boost your afterburn effect by up to 100 calories, infuse these high-energy moves and tactics into your routine, whether it be one of the exercises that burn the most calories below or a mash-up of a few.

  • Hi-lo bursts: For 3 minutes, work at an 8 or 9 on a 1-to-10 scale (with 10 being a full-throttle sprint). Back down to an easy pace for 3 minutes. Repeat 4 times.
  • Low reps: Add a heavy day to your weekly weight routine. Pick a weight you can lift just 5 times. Do 4 sets of 5 reps of your usual exercises.
  • Quick splits: Do two or three 15-minute high-energy cardio bouts, separated by 5 minutes of easy-paced activity.
  • 60-second blasts: Push yourself completely into the red for 60 seconds. Catch your breath for 2 to 3 minutes. Repeat. Work up to 15 sprints.

While you should remember all of the aforementioned factors—genetics, body composition, workout intensity—that impact how many calories someone burns doing a given activity, these averages will give you a general idea of what kind of exercises tend to burn the most calories.

400 to 500+ Calories Per Hour

  • Elliptical Training: 575 calories
  • Mountain Biking: 545 calories
  • Circuit Training (hard, with some cardio between sets): 510 calories
  • Cross-Country Skiing (moderate): 510 calories
  • Rowing (moderate, stationary machine): 450 calories
  • Swimming (freestyle laps, easy): 450 calories

300 to 400 Calories Per Hour

  • Weight Lifting (dumbbells or machines): 385 calories
  • Hiking (without a pack): 385 calories
  • Walk-Jog Intervals: 385 calories
  • Body-Sculpting Class: 350 calories
  • Kayaking: 320 calories
  • Jazz Dance: 305 calories
  • Power Walking (very briskly, 4 mph): 320 calories

150 to 300 Calories Per Hour

  • Flamenco, Belly, or Swing Dancing: 290 calories
  • Shooting Hoops: 290 calories
  • Golfing (walking and carrying clubs): 290 calories
  • Rebounding (jogging on a mini tramp): 290 calories
  • Water Aerobics: 255 calories
  • Tai Chi: 255 calories
  • Brisk Walking: (3.5 mph) 245 calories
  • Pilates (general mat workout): 160 calories
  • Yoga (Hatha): 160 calories
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