Anyone who exercises on a regular basis, particularly for the purpose of losing and maintaining weight, is interested in how the human body burns calories. The body’s ability to use what we feed it involves utilizing, or burning, the calories that we take in each day. Weight gain occurs when what we take in exceeds what we need for optimal functioning. How are calories burned, and how do we know what is enough for our individual, optimal functioning?
Special note: Burning calories is great, but loving yourself is the most important health-enhancing activity you can pursue each day. Challenge yourself, but never do it with self-punishment in mind. Not only won’t this create sustained results, but it hurts your heart. Not worth it!
Also, if you are morbidly obese, experiencing health issues, and have tried everything to lose weight, without success, this article is not for you. Reach out to a comprehensive weight loss surgery provider and attend a seminar to see if a surgical approach could be for you. This could make the difference between a life of suffering and the life of your dreams!
How we burn calories
The conversion of food into fuel involves what is called “metabolism.” We hear the word most often with regards to thin people having a fast metabolism and heavier people having a slow metabolism. However, metabolism speed is far from the only factor at play in how calories are processed within our bodies, and losing weight involves less metabolism manipulation than adjustment of calories in, balanced with activity to increase the sheer number of calories burned.
The exact number of calories that your body requires to carry out basic daily functions is called your “basal metabolic rate,” or metabolism. Factors that contribute to your metabolic rate include:
Body size and muscle mass: Bodies that are heavier or have more muscle burn more calories, both during activity and at rest.
Gender: Because muscle burns more calories than fat at rest, men, who tend to have more muscle naturally than women, require more calories to support their higher metabolism.
Age: Muscle decreases with age, often replaced by fat unless we make consistent efforts to stay fit and build muscle back, all of which decreases daily calorie burn.
Keep in mind that up to 75% of the calories you burn each day are from sheer existence and involve the energy it takes for your body to function, including processes like pumping your heart muscle, inflating your lungs with air, etc.
Aside from your basal metabolic rate, two factors that affect the rate at which your body burns calories include:
Thermogenesis: Thermogenesis is a fancy word for food processing, or the digestion, absorption, transport, and storage of the food you take in, which requires calories. According to the Mayo Clinic, thermogenesis accounts for 10 percent of the calories you burn each day. This number remains largely consistent and unchanging.
Exercise and physical activity: Here’s the part you’re probably most familiar with. Physical activity, be it washing dishes, walking your dog or taking a 5-mile jog, burns the remainder of the calories that your body burns on a daily basis. This is your breathing room, your method of altering the way your body responds to the calories it takes in. By increasing your activity, you burn more calories, and can adapt your eating accordingly.
So how much do I need?
You’re probably excited to figure out how many calories you need per day to survive so you can shave some off the top and lose pounds. The best way to calculate your basal metabolic rate is to multiply your weight in pounds by 11 if you are a man and 10 if you are a woman, or to consult a BMR calculator that accounts for your weight, height, age, and gender.
Keep in mind that your complete caloric needs will include both physical activity as well as calories burned for automatic body functions. If you are looking for a general number, however, consider the American Heart Association’s recommendations for weight maintenance for both genders:
Active women: 1800 to 2,200 calories
Active Men: 2,200 to 2,800 calories
Some small print
With your basic caloric needs in mind, it will be easier to decide exactly what you need to sustain your body while staying fit and losing pounds.
Unfortunately, the “calories in and calories out” method sounds great until about an hour after that new workout you’ve just committed to. You feel great. And starving.
Increased exercise does indeed increase hunger pangs. Often, when ravenous, we consume far more than what our body needs in order to make up for that killer workout. Also, the goal, as seen above, is to burn more than we use in order to shed fat. If we compensate for our workouts with a Big Mac, rest assured that those extra pounds won’t be going anywhere until we both cut back calories and exercise.
So how do you cope with the post-workout urge to feed your face? The answer is to do it with healthy foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as high-protein snacks like nuts, hard-boiled eggs, and low-fat cheese and yogurt, are all great options that satiate for relatively few calories. Keep a protein bar in your car if necessary so that your post-gym routine does not include a trip to Dairy Queen on the ride home.
Exercises that burn calories
If you want to torch calories like the Vikings did to medieval villages, aerobic activity is your best bet. Aerobic activity includes anything that gets your heart pumping and preferably makes you break a sweat. Running, jogging, speed walking, stair climbing, rollerblading, and mountain biking all count as high-energy, calorie-torching activities.
Aerobic activity is not the only way to create a calorie deficit, however. Weight training, or anaerobic activity, builds muscle, which increases the body’s daily metabolism, helping you burn more calories during and after your workout. Looking for a powerful calorie-busting combo? Mix aerobic activity with anaerobic in intervals - aka, interval training - to build muscle, torch calories, and maximize the amount of time you spend doing so.
Exercises that burn calories after you work out
Pssst: here’s a little secret. You can burn extra calories while not working out. The longer and more intense your exercise, the more oxygen your body uses afterward to recover. This oxygen usage equals a higher sustained metabolic rate that helps you burn more calories throughout your day. Called “excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption,” also known as “the afterburn effect,” this benefit of intense workouts allows you to reap extra benefits from vigorous workouts.
How vigorous do they need to be, you ask? The amount of extra calories burned during this time can vary greatly between individuals, based on the same factors that affect metabolism. However, exercise performed at 70 to 85 percent of an individual’s max heart rate will create an excess of calories burned after you hop off the treadmill. High intensity interval training has been shown to create an even larger calorie burn post-exercise. Keep intensity in mind, whatever your workout, and you will likely reap the benefits of the afterburn phenomenon.
Burning calories in excess of what your body naturally uses to run its functions takes not just work, but thought and planning. However, with the right information, you can understand the way in which your body burns calories and tailor both your eating and exercise habits to create sustained weight maintenance and the achievement of your fitness goals.