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One of the benefits of exercise is that it burns more calories than sitting around being sedentary. (I would argue that this is the least interesting benefit of exercise, compared to improving your strength, endurance, heart health, and mental health, but that’s a rant for another day.) So if you’re trying to manage your weight, you might want to know which types of exercise burn the most calories. Here’s a guide. 

Low intensity exercise burns more calories than HIIT

This may seem backwards. If you’re working hard, sweating and out of breath, you feel like you’re getting a lot done, right? But after just a minute or two, you need to sit down and rest. Your calorie burn goes way down when you’re resting. 

This is why you should be suspicious of anybody who talks about calories burned “per hour” of an activity you don’t do for an hour. Chopping wood with an ax, “fast,” burns 1,196 calories per hour if you are a 155-pound person. But who chops wood with an ax, fast, for a whole hour

You could say the same of running at 10 mph. That’s the top speed on many treadmills. It’s a pace that is just a few seconds shy of the Olympic marathon qualifying times. Here’s how that stacks up to paces that is more realistic for us mere mortals to keep up for an hour (calculated for a 155-pound person):

  • 1,126 calories per hour if they run at a 6-minute-per-mile pace (10 miles per hour)

  • 704 calories per hour at a more realistic 10:00 pace (6 miles per hour)

  • 563 calories per hour in a 12:00 pace (5 miles per hour)

If you’re a normal person, not a high-level athlete, an hour-long run at 10 mph is simply not going to happen. But an hour at 5 mph? That’s very doable. In fact, if you work on your endurance, you can end up doing hour-long, 5-mph jogs several times per week. And that’s what’s going to make a bigger dent in your calorie burn than a few bursts of HIIT, even if you do those bursts at a 10-mph sprint.

How different activities stack up

I’m going to use the same hypothetical 155-pound person here, not because that’s an ideal weight or anything, but because it’s a number that’s readily available on charts like this one. If you weigh more, you’ll burn more, and if you weigh less, you’ll burn less. These numbers will help us compare different activities to each other for the same person. Calculate your own personal numbers here

All numbers below are for a “moderate” pace (something you’d be able to keep up for half an hour or more without struggling) unless otherwise noted. Here’s the ranking:

  1. Running, general (5 mph): 563 calories/hour

  2. Cycling, moderate (12-14 mph): 563 calories/hour

  3. Rowing machine, moderate: 507 calories/hour

  4. Stationary cycling, moderate: 493 calories/hour

  5. Aerobics class: 457 calories/hour

  6. Walking uphill (3.5 mph): 422 calories/hour

  7. Lifting weights (“bodybuilding, vigorous”), 422 calories/hour

  8. Hatha yoga: 281 calories/hour

  9. Walking (3 mph): 232 calories/hour

  10. Lifting weights (“light”), 211 calories/hour

So if you’d like to burn the most calories, running is going to be your best bet. Cycling comes next, followed by the rowing machine, and then spin and aerobics classes (although this will vary from class to class, to be sure). 

Walking and lifting weights both come in lower on the scale, but they’re still great exercises to do. (Please note that calorie burn is not the reason to lift weights; I recommend not paying attention to calorie burn or heart rate while lifting, at all.) 

How to make any exercise burn more calories

Calorie burn isn’t an ineffable property of exercise that gets handed down to us from the Fitbit Gods. It’s just a measure of how much work your body is doing. 

Importantly, the amount of work is not the same as how it feels. Remember the example of the all-out HIIT interval that feels awful but ultimately doesn’t mean we’re doing much work. There’s also a cool thing that happens as we get fitter: we can do more work in the same time, without it necessarily feeling harder. 

Let’s say you’re doing an hour-long outing on your feet every Saturday morning. At first, you may just be walking, and you’ll burn 232 calories. But after a while you start jogging parts of it, and someday soon you’re jogging the whole thing. That’s 563 calories for the hour. 

Time passes, and you get fitter. Your endurance improves, your heart pumps blood more efficiently, your legs even get stronger (especially if you’re doing some strength training on the days you aren’t jogging). When you’re able to do that hour-long run at an 8:00 pace, you’ll be burning 880 calories in that same hour. It might feel like exactly the same effort as when you first started, but you’re doing more work now—which is why it burns more calories. 

So we know two ways to make any exercise burn more calories: 

  1. Do it for longer (for example, a 45-minute bike ride instead of a 30-minute bike ride)

  2. Build your fitness so you can do more work at the same effort level (for example, riding at 15 mph when you used to only be able to keep up 10 mph for that same time). 

That said, calorie burn during exercise is only part of the picture. Read more from me on how many calories we “should” burn in a day, and why you shouldn’t trust your fitness tracker’s exact numbers on calorie burn

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