How Many Calories Are You Really Burning?
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How Many Calories Are You Really Burning?

Find out which workouts burn the most calories.

Get Fired Up

Going for a run will erase the jumbo sundae you ate.... It's that simple, right?

We wish! Truth is, it depends on how long and fast you ran and how ginormous that sundae was. Surprised? You're not the only one: Research shows that many women overestimate the number of calories they're blasting daily, sometimes by nearly 1,000! Use our guide to learn -- and boost -- your burn.

The payoff of knowing how your body uses calories as fuel is that it can help you blast fat and change your shape. The basics: What you don't use goes straight into reserves (located in Bun 1 and Bun 2, your belly, your hips, your thighs). For every 3,500 calories you torch above and beyond your usual weekly intake, you slim down by about one pound.

As you sit there reading, 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. Scientists measure exercise intensity in METs (metabolic equivalents): The harder you work, the higher your METs. "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, PhD, MPH, 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 choppy swimmer burns more calories than one with a silky stroke. Walking uphill uses more energy than strolling the flats. And going faster is a surefire way to turn up the torch.

5 Common Calorie Myths Busted

MYTH: Mile per mile, running and walking burn the same. Not even close. "Running is a more energetic activity, because you're jumping off the ground with each stride," says David Swain, PhD, 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.

MYTH: You need to stay in the fat-blasting zone to slim down. "Women think low-intensity exercise burns the fat from their hips. That's not the case," says FITNESS advisory board member 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."

MYTH: 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," says metabolism researcher Gary Hunter, PhD., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, "especially if you program in your weight."

MYTH: 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.

MYTH: 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.

Workouts That Blast Calories

Big Burners: 400 to 500+ per hour

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

Steady Scorchers: 300 to 400 per hour

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

Easy Slimmers: 150 to 300 per hour

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

Blast Calories in Your Sleep

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. (Who knew?) Though your BMR is genetic, it's not set in stone. Here's how to tally it up and give it a boost.

Your weight (in pounds)/2.2 X 24 = BMR

To turn up your daily burn:

  • 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, a few calories a day, but every little bit adds up.

Workouts That Keep Working

The harder you exercise, the longer your body continues to zap calories after you're done. Infuse your routine with these high-energy bouts to boost your afterburn by up to 100 calories (always warm up and cool down).

  • 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. Bonus: Super toning!
  • 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.

Smart Get-Slim Strategy

Lean people rack up more than two and a half hours of additional daily movement than their overweight peers, a study showed. That means they can zap up to 350 extra calories a day on top of their daily exercise. "The calories we burn puttering around are far more important for weight maintenance than we ever imagined," says study author James Levine, MD, PhD. Here's how it all adds up.

Doing this… Time Burns off…
Window shopping 2 hours 295 calories
Planting flowers 1 hour 290 calories
Raking the lawn 1 hour

255 calories

Vacuuming 1 hour 225 calories
Washing the car 1 hour 290 calories
Playing tag 30 minutes

160 calories

Barbecuing 1 hour

160 calories

Playing guitar, seated 1 hour 130 calories
Throwing a Frisbee 30 minutes 95 calories
Walking the dog 30 minutes 95 calories
Bathing the kids 30 minutes 95 calories
Folding laundry 30 minutes 65 calories
Talking on the phone, standing 30 minutes 55 calories
Laughing at a funny movie 30 minutes 50 calories
Doing the Sunday Times crossword 30 minutes 40 calories
Chewing gum 2 hours 22 calories
Darting up stairs 1 minute 15 calories


Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2007.