What’s the Best Calorie Burning Workout?

What’s the Best Calorie Burning Workout?

Posted on: March 28, 2023

What’s the best calorie burning workout? Trick question; there isn’t one, or rather, if there is, it doesn’t really matter.

The idea of exercising to burn off what you ate is one of the biggest misconceptions in the fitness industry.

If you’re going to exercise, do it for  the health benefits, not to burn calories. Seeing your workout as a means to burn off a big meal or a night of indulgence can lead to unmet expectations and disappointment, or the thought that your workouts aren’t “working.” You don’t need to worry about how many calories you burn during your workout.

Here’s why. 

Your workout doesn’t burn as many calories as you think. 

Exercise actually makes up a small percentage of the calories you burn in a day, about 5-10 % of the total calories burned in a day. Most of the calories your body burns in a day are from metabolic processes going on behind the scenes, such as breathing, digestion, immune responses, etc, and your BMR (basal metabolic rate) and RMR (resting metabolic rate).  BMR and RMR are mainly influenced by genetics, body size, age, health status, stress levels, and sleep quality.

After those basic metabolic processes, the next highest level of calorie burning happens from NEAT. NEAT stands for Non Exercise Thermogenic Activity. Things that count as NEAT are fidgeting, walking instead of taking the elevator, doing the laundry, chores, pacing while talking on the phone, etc. Many of these activities are done subconsciously, such as fidgeting, but you can consciously do things like increase your daily step count.

But my smart watch told me I burned 2000 calories during my workout!

Calorie burn tracking apps & devices (like a Fitbit and Apple Watch) can be anywhere from 27-97% off, showing that you burned way more calories during exercise than you actually did. (To read up on the study out of Stanford University that measured the accuracy of these devices, go HERE). This inaccurate reflection of how many calories burned during exercise may lead you to overeat after a workout, taking in more calories than were actually burned during the workout. 

Ok, but I worked really hard during my workout…doesn’t that count?

Even when you do a really intense workout, your body often compensates for that by subconsciously doing less movement during the rest of the day. Exercise also increases our appetite, so we often replace the calories we burned during exercise at our next meal.

One interesting tidbit – studies do show that people who exercise regularly have the long term effects of better hunger and appetite regulation. 

What about Strength Training?

Here’s some good news (and one of the many reasons I love strength training). While your workout only makes up a small percentage of daily calories burned, strength training workouts may increase your basal metabolic rate, because they build lean muscle tissue which burns more calories at rest than fat. This is why strength training is key for helping us maintain a higher BMR as we age, which can help combat age-rated weight gain due to muscle loss.  

Should I think about calories at all?

It depends. If weight loss is your goal, rather than focusing on how many calories you burn, you can focus on how many calories you take in. Exercise makes up a small percentage of calories burned –  but what you eat and drink makes up 100% of the calories you consume in a day.

Should you track your calories? That’s a different topic for a different blog post; there are pros and cons to this. But it’s always a good idea to be mindful of what you’re eating and drinking.

Should I still exercise if it doesn’t burn that many calories?

YES!! Exercise is invaluable for your overall health & wellness. Exercise is a proven way to decrease your risk of lifestyle diseases like type two diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It will also decrease inflammation, lower your blood pressure, improve your insulin sensitivity, reduce your risk of certain cancers, and improve your mobility. Exercise is also important for mental health, as it decreases anxiety, helps with depression, improves mental clarity, and reduces your risk of dementia. Exercise is also key to remaining independent and capable as we age. 

Rather than obsessing about calorie burn, exercise instead for the myriad of health benefits and the ways it will improve your quality of life.