If you have ever used a cardio machine or smartwatch with a fitness app, you probably noticed one interesting metric: calories burned. The more work you did, the more this number grew, and with it, your sense of fulfillment. But, how accurate is this value? More importantly, can we use it when tracking our fitness progress?
Today, we will go over everything you need to know about calories burned, what it means, how good an indicator it is, and what benefits it offers. Let us dive in.
What does calories burned mean?
Calories burned is precisely what it sounds like: A machine or smart device is the best estimation for the number of calories you have burned. Most devices and cardio machines have specific formulas for calculating the number of calories a person would burn.
For instance, hop on a treadmill, and it will start showing the calories you are burning. Good treadmills also have you input your weight, which helps make this calculation more accurate. A 55 kg (120 pounds) woman would burn a vastly different number of calories than an 80 kg (176 pounds) man, even if both do the same thing.
On the contrary, watches like the FitBit Flex and heart rate monitors like the Polar H10 will also track your caloric expenditure based on your activity level, gender, and weight. If you want to know about how a smartwatch can help you to stay fit, read our previous blog post here.
Is calories burned a good indicator?
The next logical question you probably have is, "Well, how accurate is this calorie reading?" The truth is, it depends.
According to research from the past few years, most trackers out there do a good job tracking heart rate but are inaccurate for calories burned. The reason is, caloric burn is a complex process and depends on various factors. Gender and weight are two of the most significant aspects, but other factors play a role.
For instance, how efficient you are. According to research, elite endurance athletes burn fewer calories than average people doing the same workout because of technical proficiency. In other words, they become so good at a given activity that inefficiency is removed from the equation, and they can do the same amount of work with less energy. It is simple, not as hard anymore for them compared to other people.
Aerobic capacity and level of muscular development are two other significant factors. But, as you can imagine, commercially-available calorie trackers are not sophisticated enough to account for these vastly complicated factors.
In general, men will burn more calories precisely because they tend to weigh more and have more muscle mass on their frames. A woman who weighs 55 kg (120 pounds) will burn some calories from an activity. But a man who weighs 100 kg (220 pounds) will burn a lot more calories.
So, does this mean the calories burned metric is useless? Well, no. Let us explore why.
The good and bad of calorie trackers
Calorie trackers are good because they offer a consistent reading, albeit not the most accurate one (for now). Still, you can measure the calories you are burning over time and compare these values.
For instance, if you use the same device (say, an Apple Watch) or the same machine (say, a treadmill), you can focus on burning more calories in the same amount of time. If you achieve that, it means that you are doing more work. Alternatively, you can aim to burn the same number of calories but in less time.
If you are just getting started, pick a conservative goal and aim to achieve it every time - for example, 300 calories per workout. If you train five times per week, that is an extra 1’500 calories per week. Over time, you can try to increase it to 350, 400, and beyond.
It is also essential to understand your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and how the calories you burn fit the picture. For instance, if you want to keep eating the same amount of food but lose some weight, you can aim to burn an extra 400 to 500 calories per day.
Now, if you enjoy some friendly competition with friends or your significant other, we recommend choosing other metrics to compare. Although it is so easy to setup a compete with the Apple Watch, wouldn't this be fun, huh? Well, as we said above, calories burned is not as reliable, and heavier people tend to have the edge. Instead, it would be better to track metrics like step count, active time, and similar.