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How Many Calories Should I Burn a Day?

These days most of us are counting calories. Busy lives and the easy access to food that is not all that healthy has a good many of us in a position to pay attention to calories. But many of us ask, how many calories should I eat? How much is too much, and how much is too little? 

There is no shortage of fad diets that promise to shed pounds in a matter of days. There are also many diets that are backed by science and sound nutrition. These choices may still have you asking how many calories should I burn in a day because these types of diets tend to only give you a list of how many calories you should take in. 

Your caloric intake is, of course, important, but just as important is how many calories you burn in a day. In order to properly work with your caloric intake toward a specific goal, you need to know what happens to those calories after you take them in. 

The question comes down to how to balance diet and exercise. It is a matter of figuring out how much I take in versus how much I burn. This formula becomes a matter of simple math. 

If you are wondering, how many calories should I burn in a day, this guide will help you make that determination.  Learning to calculate calorie burn and how to balance this against your diet is really a matter of crunching some numbers and a little strategy for exercise and diet. 

What is a calorie?

First, some basic information. We throw the word “calorie” around as if we are all born knowing what a calorie is. But that is not the case. A calorie is a unit of measurement. It is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. 

This measurement becomes important when we use calories to determine the energy used in our bodies for metabolism. Like any other mechanism that generates heat, our metabolism requires a specific amount of fuel to perform basic functions. This fuel is measured in calories. The problems come when the amount of calories we take in is not properly balanced against how many calories we burn. With an imbalance, we either gain or lose weight. 

Calories on our bodies make up the fuel we need to create the heat necessary for our metabolism and our physiological functions to go on. Since it is possible to take in more calories than we need, our bodies are adapted to store calories for later use. 

When we store too many calories, they begin to be stored in the form of fat, and this is the problem for most of us. If we store too many calories, we gain weight. In order to lose weight, the primary mode of attack is to cut down on the number of calories we take in and to burn more calories than we take in. 

Here we arrive at the question: how many calories should I burn. This obviously depends on a few factors, but there is a formula for determining how many calories you need to burn. 

Calculating Daily Calorie Burn

For anyone who needs or wants to maintain, lose, or gain weight calculating how many calories you burn is important. Getting a handle on how many calories you burn in a day makes it possible to alter your caloric intake to achieve your goals. 

The standard formula for calculating how many calories is called the Harris-Benedict Formula. This formula was first developed in the early 20th century. It was refined in 1984 then further fine-tuned in 1990 to make it as accurate as possible. 

Calorie Burn Calculator Formula

The Harris-Benedict Formula is relatively simple. You just multiply your basal metabolic rate (BMR) by your average daily activity level. BMR is the number of calories you burn simply to be alive. Breathing, heart rate, brain function—all of this makes up your BMR. BMR calculations are different for men and women because women maintain different metabolic functions at a baseline level. The formula for BMR is as follows:

To calculate your BMR, you’ll use your sex, age, and weight. The original formulas for calculating this number are as follows, using pounds for weight, inches for height, and years for age.

  • 66 + (6.2 x weight) + (12.7 x height) - (6.76 x age) = BMR for men
  • 655.1 + (4.35 x weight) + (4.7 x height) - (4.7 x age) = BMR for women

A 40-year-old, 150 pound, 5 foot 6-inch-tall woman, for example, would be 655.1 + (4.35 x 150) + (4.7 x 66) - (4.7x40) = 1,429.7.

A 40-year-old, 180 pound, 6-foot-tall man would be 66 + (6.2 x 180) + (12.7 x 72) - (6.76 x 40) = 1,829.8.

After you calculate your BMR, you will need to figure out your activity level. For this, you use a simple factor based on how active you are. This requires a little honesty. These factors are:

  • 1.2: sedentary (little to no exercise)
  • 1.375: lightly active (light exercise 1-3 days per week)
  • 1.55: moderately active (moderate exercise 3-5 days per week)
  • 1.725: very active (hard exercise 6-7 days per week)
  • 1.9: extra active (very hard exercise/training or physical job)

For example, let’s say a woman is a postal worker and walks all day. Her activity level would be set to 1.9. Now let’s say a man works at a desk and walks for exercise several times a week. His activity level would be set to 1.55.

Finally, to arrive at the Harris-Benedict Formula, you put these numbers together. This would look like this: 

The 150-pound woman who is “extra active:”

  • 1429.7 (BMR) x 1.9 (activity level) = 2,716 (calories/day to maintain current weight)

The 180-pound man who is “moderately active:”

  • 1829.8 (BMR) x 1.55 (activity level) = 2,836 (calories/day to maintain current weight)

This gives you an accurate picture of how many calories you burn in a normal day. 

Different Factors Affecting Calorie Burn

Not everyone burns calories in the same way and at the same rate. There are several factors that affect calorie burn and taken together, they can alter the picture of how many calories you need to burn in a day. 

Factors that affect calorie burn include:

  • Age: As we get older, we burn fewer calories in a day. 
  • Sex: Men burn more than women. 
  • Daily activity: If you are more active, you burn more calories. 
  • Body composition: People with more lean muscle burn more calories than those who have less muscle. 
  • Body size: Larger people burn more calories than smaller people at a resting state. 
  • Thermogenesis: This is the energy needed to break down food.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnant women burn more calories than non-pregnant women.  
  • Breast-feeding: Women who are breastfeeding burn more calories. 

All these variables will affect your daily calorie burn. Even with the Harris-Benedict formula, calorie burn is not a simple and constant number. The bottom line is you need to take a lot of things into account to figure out how many calories you need to burn in a day. 

Calorie quantities while doing daily activities?

In addition to the factors listed above, many daily activities burn calories. Nearly all of us have to attend to basic chores and activities during the course of the day. These things matter for calorie burn. 

Taking a 155-pound person as our example, here are some of the daily activities and the calorie count for each:

  • Cleaning gutters: 186
  • Computer work: 51
  • Cooking: 93
  • Gardening: 167
  • Grocery shopping with a cart: 130
  • Office work: 56
  • Mowing the lawn: 167
  • Reading: 42
  • Sleeping: 23
  • Walking (average speed of 3.5 mph): 149
  • Watching television: 28

As you can see, even some of the most sedentary activities burn calories.

How to increase your Daily Calorie Expenditure

The easy answer to this question is to exercise and eat fewer calories. We all know this is easier said than done. But the simple truth is burning calories requires some effort. However, research shows that we do not need to spend large parts of our days at the gym to up our calorie expenditure. 

Here are a few ways to increase your daily calorie expenditure:

  1. Exercise: Putting in some time at a gym or doing a home workout will burn calories. This is a fact. But even something as simple as a brisk walk every day will boost your calorie expenditure significantly. 
  2. Resistance training to build muscle: Building muscle causes your body to burn calories. It is estimated that 10 pounds of muscle burns 50 calories a day. 
  3. Drink caffeinated beverages. Coffee and green tea are your best bets. As little as 250 mg of caffeine can increase calorie expenditure by 10 percent. 
  4. Eat smaller meals more frequently. Digestion requires caloric expenditure. When you eat smaller meals with greater frequency, your metabolism has to work harder and burn more calories to digest what you eat. 
  5. Do not skip breakfast. Research shows that people who skip breakfast tend to eat more later in the day to make up for hunger and calorie deficit. You may think you are cutting calories by skipping breakfast, but it comes back to you later.  
  6. Drink at least 8 cups of water a day. Staying properly hydrated will not only flush your system, but it can also burn as many as 700 calories a week. That adds up over the course of a month. 
  7. Move around more. This sounds obvious, but if you spend your day sitting, take time throughout the day and move around. This will boost your metabolism and burn calories. 
  8. The “1 time 10 trick,” At least 10 times a day, take an opportunity to raise your heart rate for one minute. This can burn as many as 400 calories. 

These are small steps that will lead to real results. Burning calories does not require a high-intensity workout. A simple exercise like walking, some planning with your meals, and drinking plenty of water will significantly increase your calorie expenditure. 

Do men and women burn calories differently?

The answer to this is yes. It may seem unfair, but men burn calories at a faster rate than women.  Men and women burn calories differently. Men generally have more muscle mass than women, and women generally have more body fat just on a baseline level. More muscle mass means calories burn faster and more efficiently. 

Second, men are on average six inches taller than women. This makes for more total mass. The more mass, the more you burn calories. This is simple physics.  

Wrapping things up

Most of us will find ourselves counting calories these days for one reason or another. The fact is, our modern lifestyles leave many of us working jobs that keep us sedentary. We do not get the daily activity necessary to burn calories. 

What is more, with our lives as busy as they are, too often we end up eating the wrong foods. These things stick to us and shedding the pounds can be harder than we think. While we may make time to hit the gym, get a short run in, or do a workout at home, we still may struggle to stay as fit as we would like. 

Getting a handle on how many calories we burn in a day is the first step toward a sensible plan for controlling our caloric intake. Whether the goal is to lose weight, maintain weight, or even gain weight, we need to know how many calories we burn on an average day. This allows us to determine how many calories we should or should not consume. 

Thankfully, daily caloric expenditure is a reasonably easy thing to determine. The formula provided above will give you an accurate picture of how many calories you burn in a day. From this, you can easily figure out how many calories you take in, and how many calories you should burn. 

In the final analysis, keeping track of how many calories you burn in a day is a matter of simple mathematics, some common sense, and a little planning.

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