How many calories do you really burn when you exercise? You'd be surprised

By Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D.

A lot of people seem surprised by how few calories they actually burn when they exercise compared to how quickly they can eat the same number of calories. In one recent study, participants overestimated their calorie burn by three to four times what they actually burned! What's more, because they thought they burned more than they did, they ate more-as much as three times what they actually burned.

That's why I don't use my my three-mile walk or run, which burns about 300 calories, as an excuse to reach for a 300-calorie snack (for example, two small, 1-ounce squares of dark chocolate and 1 ounce (about 23) salted almonds) when I arrive home.

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To stick to my calorie goals, I think of my daily calorie allotment like a checkbook. The calories I burn in a day are my balance (and how active I am dictates how many calories I can eat). During the day I mentally subtract estimates of the calories I eat. If I end the day with a zero balance, I maintain my weight. If I give in to one of my weaknesses (like a larger bowl of ice cream) or I don't get my exercise, I'll likely overdraw my balance.

When that happens, I do two things the following days to avoid gaining weight: eat a little less and exercise more. It's a strategy that works, too: in a study of over 5,000 people who lost weight and kept it off, 94 percent of them were physically active-and most for about an hour each day.

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So how can you calculate your daily calorie balance? Here's a simple formula to estimate the number of calories you need-without taking into account the extra calories you can burn while exercising-to maintain your weight: Multiply your weight in pounds times 12.

(This may vary depending on a few things like the amount of muscle mass you have-muscle burns more calories than fat-and your age; as most people's calorie needs decline with age because they lose muscle over time. Still it's a good starting point.)

Now estimate how many calories you burn while exercising: I like to use a rough guide of 100 calories per mile you walk or run.

Calories Burned in 10 Minutes (values are based on a 150-pound person):

  • Bicycling, leisurely 10mph: 45 calories

  • Bicycling, 10-12 mph (light): 68 calories

  • Bicycling, mountain (strenuous): 97 calories

  • Canoeing/rowing for pleasure: 40 calories

  • Football or baseball, playing catch: 28 calories

  • Gardening: 57 calories

  • Golf, pulling clubs: 57 calories

  • Golf, power cart: 40 calories

  • Health Club stair machine/treadmill: 102 calories

  • Household chores, light: 28 calories

  • Household chores, moderate: 45 calories

  • Jog/walk combination: 68 calories

  • Jogging, general: 80 calories

  • Running, 5 mph, 12-minute mile: 91 calories

  • Soccer, casual: 80 calories

  • Stretching or yoga: 28 calories

  • Swimming leisurely (not laps): 68 calories

  • Swimming laps, freestyle: 80 calories

  • Tennis, doubles: 68 calories

  • Walking, 3 mph, moderate pace: 37 calories

  • Walking, very brisk pace: 57 calories

  • Water aerobics: 45 calories

  • Weight lifting, moderate: 34 calories

If you're trying to lose weight, you should aim to burn 1,000 calories a week. But more is even better. Those 5,000 successful losers I mentioned above reported burning an average of 2,800 calories per week. Other experts recommend exercising at least 45 to 60 minutes per day-to both lose weight and to keep it off.

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One more way to increase the calories you burn is with lifestyle changes. The goal is to move as much as you can every day. Most of us have sedentary jobs and a recent study found that this translates to about 120 to 140 fewer calories burned each day. You can boost that number with a few tricks:

• Walk down the hall instead of e-mailing a colleague.
• Use the restroom on another floor in your office building and take the stairs to get there.
• Walk with friends at lunch.

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How do you keep your calories in balance?

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., for EatingWell Magazine

Rachel Johnson
Rachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., is the Bickford Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont. She is a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition Science Board.

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