6 Things You Need to Know About Counting Exercise Calories

There is a well-known formula that is commonly associated with weight loss: burning more calories + eating fewer calories = weight loss. Sounds fairly simple, right?

Certainly, that formula is straightforward. But the process of reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is far more complicated than a simple math problem. There are numerous factors that can affect your food intake and the calories burned during exercise. So getting accurate numbers can be challenging.

If you choose to use a structured, numbers-based program for weight loss, a registered dietitian can help you to develop a nutritious meal plan. Then, understanding these six concepts about exercise calories will help you to develop and maintain a comprehensive plan to reach your health goals.

Should You Count Exercise Calories to Lose Weight?

Using the calories in/calories out approach to weight loss gives the process some structure which might be helpful for some people. At least one study has even compared structured weight loss plans to less-structured weight loss plans and found that more structure may work slightly better for some people.

If this is the path that works best for you, tracking your exercise calories can help you determine if you are reaching your target numbers for weight loss. Experts recommend that maintaining a negative calorie balance of 500–750 calories per day is an appropriate daily prescription for weight loss for people with obesity who want to lose weight at a rate of 1-2 pounds per week.

But weight loss is not always that simple and the calories in/calories out principle doesn't always work. For some people, it may trigger unhealthy eating or exercise habits.

Some research suggests that use of fitness monitors and apps to track calories (both exercise and food calories) is associated with eating disorders in college students.

Taking an intuitive approach to diet and exercise may be best for those who are triggered by counting calories. Intuitive eating simply means that you listen to your body cues rather than using external messages about what you "should" or "shouldn't" eat. You can also take an intuitive approach to exercise.

Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss. The best and most sustainable plan for you depends on your needs, your past history with food, your preferences, and your long-term goals.

6 Things to Know About Counting Exercise Calories

If you have chosen to count exercise calories, you might use an activity calculator like this one to determine how many calories you burn during different types of activities. You might even use this calculator to select certain activities that burn more calories to make the most of your workout time.

While a calculator is helpful, it can only give you a general estimate of your energy expenditure based on based on your weight, the type of workout, and the duration of the activity.

The accuracy of that number depends on several other factors. It is important to understand these other factors to get a better overall sense of your energy expenditure throughout the day and to stay motivated throughout your weight loss journey.

Net Calories vs. Gross Calories

Activity calculators generally provide a number that reflects the number of gross calories burned during your workout. Your gross caloric expenditure is different than your net caloric expenditure.

  • Net calories are sometimes called active calories. During a workout, it refers to the total number of calories burned during your activity minus calories expended for basal metabolic functions. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) —also called your resting metabolic rate (RMR)—is the energy needed to sustain basic functions such as breathing and circulation. Net calories refers to the extra calories burned during physical activity.
  • Gross calories refers to the total number of calories that you burn in a given period of time, such as during a workout. This number includes calories burned from your BMR and the extra energy required for exercise activity.

For example, if you jogged during a time that you normally watch TV, you’re still burning more calories than you would have burned while sitting on the couch, but you need to subtract the calories you would’ve burned while watching TV in order to get a more accurate calculation of how running contributed to your total caloric expenditure.

So why does this matter? If you have set a target to burn an extra 300 calories per day to create an energy deficit for weight loss, those calories should be net calories, not gross calories, in order for them to be truly "extra."

What You Can Do

Some fitness trackers and smart watches provide numbers for both active calories and total calories burned during a workout. If you have set a goal to burn extra calories for weight loss, use the active number rather than the total number in determining whether or not you have reached your target.

Exercise Intensity

How hard you work during your workout plays an important role in the number of calories you burn during exercise. But not all physical activity calorie estimates take intensity into account.

Some activity calculators give you the ability to choose between different intensities (such as various running paces). But for most activities, there is no way to input an intensity level into an online calculator.

Calorie calculators on exercise machines, such as those on cardio machines like treadmills and elliptical trainers use duration and your weight (if you input your weight accurately) to determine the number of calories you burn. They generally do not take intensity into account.

Activity trackers that have a heart rate monitor are most likely to give you a better estimate of calories burned during your workout because they use heart rate measurements to determine how hard you are working.

For instance, if you work exceptionally hard during your treadmill workout, your tracker is more likely to take the higher heart rate into account and display a higher caloric expenditure as a result. But harder workouts are not always better.

A pilot study published in 2017 compared different aerobic exercise intensities in young adults with obesity. They found that 12 weeks of light-intensity exercise significantly reduced body weight and body fat. But 12 weeks of high intensity exercise reduced reduced body weight, body fat, waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, and and waist-to-height ratio.

However, there are drawbacks to high-intensity exercise that you may want to consider. You may not enjoy exercise if you have to work very, very hard. And high-intensity exercise increases your risk of burnout and injury.

Some researchers suggest that moderate intensity workouts with a low perceived effort is more effective for some people because very hard workouts could lead to drop out and other problems.

What You Can Do

Choose a workout intensity that promotes consistency and self-confidence. You may want to exercise at different intensities throughout the week to prevent burnout and injury.

Regardless, how hard you work will affect the number of calories you burn. Some activity trackers take heart rate into account when determining your total number of calories burned. For that reason, they are likely to be more accurate than physical activity calorie calculators.

Workout Type

Different types of activities provide different types of benefits. If you focus only on caloric expenditure to maximize your energy deficit, you might miss out on the benefits that some workouts can provide. These benefits won't show up on your fitness tracker or on the calorie calculator.

Weight Bearing vs. Non-Weight Bearing

Generally speaking, weight-bearing activities like running, jumping rope, or walking have the potential to more calories because gravity requires your body to work harder. In addition, weight bearing activities also promote better bone health. But non-weight-bearing activities, like cycling or water jogging may be more comfortable for those with joint issues.

If you are able to, you might want to participate in both types of activities to optimize workout results. You might choose to do a few days per week of weight bearing activities to optimize bone health. Then take a day or two to do non-weight bearing activities to give your body a break.

Aerobic vs. Strength Training

Countless studies have shown that cardio exercise is effective for burning calories to lose weight. Research has also demonstrated that strength or resistance training helps to promote weight loss and weight maintenance because it helps your body to maintain lean muscle mass.

But if you're tracking exercise calories, you're likely to see that your weight training workouts burn fewer calories than your cardio sessions. So should you avoid them? Probably not.

Some studies have compared weight training to cardio for weight loss. Not surprisingly, experts advise that you combine both types of exercise because both provide important benefits.

What You Can Do

Choose different types of exercise that you enjoy to make your workout program comfortable and sustainable. Try to include both aerobic and resistance training in your plan. Aerobic exercise generally burns more calories while strength training helps you to maintain lean muscle mass.

Current Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest that you get at least 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity or a combination of both per week. The guidelines also suggest that you participate in resistance training at least two days per week.

Mechanical Efficiency

Your ability to perform exercises properly—your mechanical efficiency—can impact the number of calories that you burn during a workout. It seems strange that being good at an activity would mean burning fewer calories. But that’s exactly what can happen when you exercise consistently.

When you first learn a new form of exercise, there is usually a learning curve. Your first attempts may require more effort because your body isn't used to the activity—which can result in a higher heart rate and a higher caloric expenditure.

Over time, the movements usually became more natural and efficient. That is, your body can perform the exercise with less effort and fewer calories. But you can keep your calorie expenditure from falling by working harder.

For instance, when you are first learning to swim you may burn a lot of calories because you find yourself splashing and kicking to keep your body buoyant. But as you become more efficient and streamlined, your body moves through the water with less effort (and fewer calories).

None of these changes are reflected in the calorie result shown on a physical activity calculator. You may see changes on your fitness tracker if it takes heart rate into consideration.

What You Can Do

Your body's ability to move through exercises with ease is called "mechanical efficiency" and it is a good thing. It allows you to move through activities with less effort and a lower heart rate. But it can affect (decrease) the number of calories you burn during a workout and it is not taken into account when you use an activity calculator.

To burn more calories for weight loss, you can increase your workload as you become more proficient with different activities. A heart rate monitor (HRM) or fitness tracker with HRM can give you a better estimate of calories burned because it takes heart rate into consideration.

Exercise Compensation

Sometimes, exercising for weight loss doesn't yield the results that you expect even though you are completing workouts that align with your calorie targets. So what's the problem? Exercise compensation may be to blame.

Your exercise program can affect your activity level for the rest of the day. For instance, if you do a tough workout and then take a nap or skip an afternoon walk, you may burn fewer total daily calories as a result. Exercise can also increase your appetite, causing you to eat more calories. Researchers call this phenomenon exercise compensation.

What You Can Do

If you are counting exercise calories to lose weight, try to track your total daily caloric expenditure (TDEE) rather than just the calories burned during your workout. You may find that you make adjustments to your activity level and food intake that negate the calories burned from exercise.

If this is the case, reconsider the intensity of your workout program. You may be working too hard too often. It may also signal that your energy intake is too low. Work with a registered dietitian to make sure you are getting enough calories to fuel your activity level.

Genetics and Gender

Our genetic make-up helps to determine resting metabolic rate, muscle fiber types, and responses to exercise, all of which can affect our ability to burn calories and lose weight. Unfortunately, no activity tracker or physical activity calorie calculator can take genetics into account.

Gender can also affect the number of calories you burn. Women usually have more body fat than men and their bodies respond differently to exercise, which can change the rate of fat loss.

Some activity calculators and most trackers take gender into account, but they can not consider your genetic makeup. It is one more reason to take the numbers that you get with a grain of salt when tracking exercise calories.

A Word From Verywell

Tracking calories—from food or from exercise—is not the best approach for everyone. Some people may find that working out just to reach a target calorie goal takes the joy out of movement. And certainly, exercise provides a wide range of health benefits that have nothing to do with calories or weight loss.

If you find that tracking exercise calories helps you to reach your weight loss goals, it is important to understand that the numbers you get are not exact. Whether you use a calorie calculator or a fitness tracker, the best you can get is an estimate. So, take the numbers with a grain of salt and try to focus on the other aspects of exercise that benefit both your body and your brain for wellness and for weight loss.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Malia Frey, M.A., ACE-CHC, CPT
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.