While most of us know that there’s more to a healthy lifestyle than calorie-counting, it’s true that they have a purpose if one of your goals is to lose weight. Calories are units of energy widely used to measure food (you may also know them as kcals) and, according to the NHS, when we eat and drink more calories than we use up via exercise, our bodies store the excess as fat. This can, of course, lead to weight gain.
Many trainers and dieticians will talk about creating something called a “calorie deficit” when losing weight. This essentially means eating less to keep your calorie intake low, which can eventually lead to weight loss. But what about if you want to measure how many calories you burn on a daily basis in order to figure out the healthy food intake for you?
We all live different lives - some of us naturally do more exercise than others thanks to our jobs, commutes etc. - so there’s no exact answer to that, but it is possible to get a rough estimation of how many calories you burn a day. We spoke to Elliot Moore, Lifestyle Health Adviser from Bupa UK, who explained how to figure out roughly how much you’re burning...
What are calories?
“A calorie – short for kilocalorie (kcal) - is a way we measure the energy units found within food and drink,” Elliot explains. “We all need to consume a certain amount of them in order to stay healthy and help us go about our daily lives. However, if we eat and drink more calories than we burn off during the day, our bodies hold these calories as excess body fat.
“On average, men need around 2,500 calories (kcals) each day to keep a healthy weight, whereas the average woman needs around 2,000kcals.”
Of course, that’s a general guideline - some women are likely to burn more calories than some men. Which is where a more individual measurement could come in handy, if you’re ready for some maths...
How do we measure calories being burned?
Elliot says that “your gender, age, weight and the level of effort used to carry out an activity all affect the number of calories you burn.
“Exercise activity is measured in metabolic equivalents which are also known as METs. Although this measurement of activity doesn’t take individual fitness levels into consideration, we can use the METs formula to estimate how many calories you burn per activity:
“Energy expenditure (calories/minute) = .0175 x MET x weight (in kilograms)”
As an example, a brisk walk is around four METs, while weight training is around five, swimming six and running 11.5.
Once you’ve figured the calculation out, you can start to apply it to your daily routine. For example, if you walk 20 minutes to work every morning, use that to figure out how many calories you burned doing so. It's fairly complicated to start with, but you'll soon get a good idea of your personal numbers.
Do women burn less calories than men?
On average, yes. “Because men tend to have more muscle, heavier bones and less body fat compared to women that are the same age and height, men are usually able to naturally burn more calories than women,” explains Elliot.
How many calories do we burn a day?
This obviously depends a lot on your daily routine, so we asked Elliot to break it down into individual activity estimates.
How many calories do we burn while walking?*
Women - 140kcals, based on a moderate-paced walk to work
Men – 168 kcals, based on a moderate-paced walk to work
How many calories do we burn while running?*
Women – 343kcals, based on a moderately-paced speed (6mph)
Men – 412kcals, based on a moderately-paced speed (6mph)
How many calories do we burn while swimming?*
Women – 203kcals (front crawl), 186kcals (breast stroke)
Men – 244kcals (front crawl), 223kcals (breast stroke)
How many calories do we burn while cycling?*
Women – 280kcals (moderate speed, around 12mph)
Men – 336kcals (moderate speed, around 12mph)
What is the average calories burned by women and men per day?
If you can't face the calculations and just want a rough estimate of your daily rate, Elliot has got you covered.
"It’s estimated that relatively sedentary women – e.g. those who work in an office and exercise little - burn around 1,600kcals per day versus 2,400kcals per day for those with more active lifestyles.
"Men with more sedentary lifestyles are estimated to burn around 2,000kcals a day, whereas more active men can burn estimates of 3,000kcals."
Are calories important to measure?
While calories have their use in terms of managing weight gain, it's important not to let counting them take over your life.
"Treat calories as a balancing act; whilst one day you might consume more energy than you burn off, this isn’t necessarily something you need to obsess over – just make sure you balance this out by taking in less energy on the following days," says Elliot.
It's always worth remembering than some foods high in calories can have lots of nutritional value (such as avocado and tofu), while some low in calorie (such as white bread) may not be good for you when consumed a lot. Essentially, try to get a bit of everything; and if that means a few extra mince pies over Christmas? Well, there's always next year.
* Estimations based on 30 minutes of the activity, for a man and a woman of average weight in the UK: assumption that the man = 84kg; woman = 70kg.