In the quest for physical fitness—and perhaps weight loss—many people strive to add intense, calorie-burning workouts to their routines. Exercise is essential for building muscle, stamina and cardiovascular fitness. To be as healthy as possible, we all need regular exercise. Exercise is a key part of aging well and extending the “healthspan;” the number of years one gets to spend not just living, but living free of debilitating illness or disease.
People who engage in regular exercise are more likely to avoid common lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and even heart disease. They’re also less likely to be significantly overweight or obese. Given that being sedentary—sitting too much—is a new independent risk factor for heart disease, exercise is a life-enhancing, life-saving activity.
In and Out
In past decades, experts subscribed to a simple formula regarding calorie intake and weight gain. According to this seemingly logical model, the number of calories in (consumed) must equal the number of calories out (burned) in a given 24-hour period, or those excess calories would be stored. As fat. This model is perfectly logical from the standpoint of simple physics. Unfortunately, human beings are far from simple.
More recently it has become clear that the old calories in/calories out model is an oversimplification, at best. For one thing, not all the calories in a given amount of food are actually available to the body. For another, not all foods affect appetite, or promote satiation (the feeling of being full), equally. According to the old model, it was perfectly acceptable for a thin, fit person to eat a jelly donut, containing 600 calories, for example, provided that person spent about one hour swimming or doing some other intensive form of exercise that would “burn off” those calories.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. If your goal is to promote weight loss, you are far more likely to achieve measurable results by focusing on diet, rather than exercise. In short, attempting to burn calories by doing specific exercises is not a reliable way to lose weight. There are many good reasons to exercise, but achieving weight loss is probably not among them. Exercise tends to stimulate the appetite, so controlling eating becomes far more important when it comes to weight loss or maintenance.
Focus on Diet
As noted earlier, what you eat is far more important than how many calories you consume in a given item. A 100-calorie protein bar and a 100-calorie piece of candy have fundamentally different effects on satiety and appetite. Complex carbohydrates, for example, are broken down by the body far more slowly than simple carbs, such as table sugar. The latter causes a surge in blood sugar, followed by a spike in insulin, which is followed, in turn, by a crash in blood sugar. And then, guess what? You’re hungry again relatively quickly. And more likely to reach for yet another snack.
Choosing a snack with protein and complex carbs, even if it has the same number of calories as a sugary treat, will probably result in less weight gain in the longterm, because the complex carbs take significantly longer to break down, while the sugar-laden treat will cause a sharp spike in blood sugar. One leaves you feeling satisfied until your next meal, while the other makes you feel like reaching for yet another snack.
The Best Exercise: The One You’ll Keep Doing
With that in mind, it may still be useful to know which exercises are most likely to burn the most calories. The best exercise for you will always be the one that you like enough to stick with. If you don’t do it regularly, it’s unlikely to yield any significant benefits.
Theoretically, to lose one pound of body fat, you will need to “burn” 3,500 calories. But, as noted above, it’s not really that simple. To arrive at the actual calories you will burn during a given exercise, it’s also necessary to know your body weight. Heavier people burn more calories than lighter ones while engaging in an equivalent activity.
For example, a 200-pound man who vigorously mountain bikes for one hour may burn up to 683 calories, but a 140-pound woman might burn just 476 calories biking alongside him. Again, it’s simple physics. It takes more energy (calories represent units of energy) to move a larger mass through a given distance. Thus, the heavier person burns more calories doing the same activity.
As you can see, there’s no real way to state that X exercise burns Y calories per hour. It varies widely, based on your own body mass, intensity of effort, and even factors such as wind, slope, and added weight. Carrying a backpack while walking, for example, can significantly increase the number of calories you will need to expend to go a given distance. The following estimates are broad; actual results will vary depending on variables noted above.
Other High-Calorie Exercises
- Butterfly and Crawl, especially (up to 800 calories per hour)
- The faster your run, the more calories burned (up to about 700 calories per hour)
- About 700 calories per hour
- More than 20 mph (burns about 650 calories per hour)
- At about 13 mph (burns about 600 calories per hour)
Skiing (especially Nordic)
- About 600 calories per hour
- About 600 calories per hour
Golfing (carrying clubs)
- About 400 calories per hour