May 212010

Susan Dawson-Cook finishing the La Jolla Shores 5KIf you’re like most of us, you want to maximize the number of calories burned during each and every workout. That way, sampling a thick slice of chocolate cake at your neighbor’s luncheon or sharing a bottle of wine with your spouse at dinner won’t lead to guilt or extra weight around the mid-section. But how many calories do you really burn when you swim, run or lean on that weight machine and chat with your friends (if you do the latter, we need to talk)?

The number of calories you burn depends on the type of activity in which you are engaged, your weight and how vigorously you engage in a given activity.

First, the bad news. If you weigh 200 pounds, you will burn more calories than a 150 pound individual during any given activity, even though both of you are doing the same amount of work. Yes, ladies—it’s an unpleasant fact of life that you can’t eat as many calories as your spouses without paying the piper.

The good news is that you burn more calories when you work harder, so you can make up for the calories you’re not burning by being female by exerting more or engaging in a more challenging activity. For example, if you walk at a 3 mile-per-hour pace, you will burn only 210 calories per hour, but if you step it up to a 4 mile- per-hour pace, you will burn 318 calories instead.* To increase calorie consumption even further, you could walk longer than an hour, faster or engage in a more vigorous activity, such as running.

Running receives the highest accolades when it comes to calorie consumption. According to the Fitness Partner Connection website (, a 140 pound individual will burn 572 calories per hour running an 11.5 minute mile and 891 calories running a 7 minute mile. Swimming (up to 700 calories/hour), jumping rope (636 calories/hour), the stair step machine (572 calories/hour), stationary rowing (540 calories/hour) and bicycling (up to 636 calories/hour) are other big calorie burners that are less traumatic on the body than running.*

Calories are most efficiently burned by performing continuous exercise for a long duration, such as running, swimming, cycling or walking. With running or walking, you can use miles per hour to calibrate calories burned. Fitness classes such as step aerobics, low impact aerobics, water aerobics and dance can also qualify as good calorie burning activities, but it is harder to estimate caloric expenditure during these activities since the amount of effort participants put into classes varies dramatically.

When you take a class, the number of calories burned is dependent on how quickly you are moving, how many risers are under your step, how much arm and leg motion is occurring with each step. So try to make the most of each class, focusing on each movement to maximize caloric expenditure within limits comfortable for your fitness level.

In addition to regular workouts, you can maximize calorie consumption throughout the day by merely choosing anything that involves motion over idle activities. Instead of watching TV, opt for pulling weeds in the back yard. Instead of dropping into a chair at a party, stand up and mingle.

Unless you have unusually high metabolism, exercise is not a carte blanche to head for the all-you-can-eat buffet table. In reality, the 500 calories most of us burn during an hour workout won’t allow for much extra food on the plate. However, if diet stays constant as activity is increased, this daily deficit of 500 calories can have a huge impact on weight over time. Burning an extra 500 calories per day (a 3500 calorie deficit is required to lose one pound) can lead to a loss of one pound in a week, four pounds in a month or a whopping 48 pounds a year!

As we age, maintaining a healthy weight or losing unwanted pounds becomes more challenging, but being overweight doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion if a proper balance of exercise and healthy diet is established.

* Calorie consumption examples are from and are based on a 140 pound individual.

7 Responses to “Calorie Burning 101”

  1. cheryl Palen says:

    don’t count calories…never will. Eat until I am full. Exercise when the mood strikes me and ’cause it feels good. No other reason.
    (I hate math, can you tell?) 🙂

  2. Susan Dawson-Cook says:

    Cheryl, it’s great that random eating and exercise works for you. Now that I’ve established a habit of healthy living, I use a more intuitive approach myself. But when I was in my 20s, I gained a lot of weight and had to learn to manage portions and improve the quality of the food (and drinks!) I was consuming to reach my ideal weight.

    I offer different topics on this blog and the “Weight Loss/Maintenance” category, although not apparently relevent to you, is of interest to many of my other readers and personal training clients. I hope this makes sense 🙂

  3. Jennifer J. says:

    Hey, Susan,
    Here’s a question for you. There’s a strong possibility I’ll need shoulder surgery. What do you do if you can’t be active for awhile? Like if my shoulder is immobilized… I like doing intervals and stepping up speed and/or incline on the treadmill at the gym, but I have a feeling that changing things up if I’m wearing a sling or whatever could cause me to fall because I’m a klutz, and that wouldn’t be good.

    Should I just walk with no incline on the treadmill, and just walk longer? Or do something that I can’t possibly fall off of, like a stationery bike?

    I realize this means someone would have to drop me at the gym and pick me up, as I probably won’t be able to drive for awhile.

  4. Susan Dawson-Cook says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I hope you consider all other options first before shoulder surgery as the outcomes on this often aren’t favorable. Even if you do have surgery, there will be ways you can stay active. When the shoulder is in a sling, stationary bicycling and walking will work best. I don’t see any reason why you can’t do incline on the treadmill and also possibly the elliptical without arms. I would advocate longer duration work over “fast” so you don’t jolt the shoulder.

    Good luck!

  5. Jennifer J. says:

    Thank you, Susan, for all your wise advice. I will take it to heart.

  6. cheryl Palen says:

    I don’t eat randomly…nor exercise randomly either. I guess I gave the wrong impression. You can’t do that and complete ultra runs and ironman races as I am sure you know. I guess I have been living healthily since I decided to begin training at 16 so just don’t understand having to make a change ’cause it’s just a part of my whole lifestyle.

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