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How Many Active Calories Should I Burn A Day? 4 Determining Factors

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With fitness and health tech and gadgets such as the Apple Watch, certain concepts such as “active calories burned per day“ have entered the everyday vernacular and discussion surrounding weight loss and health.

Apple Watch active calories burned and other fitness tech that can measure your active calories daily expenditure leads many people to ask the question: How many active calories should I burn a day?

Furthermore, the very notion of what active calories mean or the active calories definition can be confusing, making it all the more difficult to understand how to answer the question: How many active calories should I burn a day?

In this guide, we will discuss what active calories mean, factors that affect how many active calories you should burn a day, and recommendations for how many active calories to burn per day based on your weight loss goals.

We will look at: 

  • How Many Active Calories Should I Burn A Day?
  • Factors that Affect How Many Active Calories You Should Burn Per Day
  • Can Your Active Calories Burned a Day Be Too High?
  • How Many Active Calories Should You Burn a Day?

Let’s get started!

A person running on a beach.

How Many Active Calories Should I Burn A Day?

Before we directly answer the question: “How many active calories should you burn a day?” it is helpful to look at what active calories means exactly.

So, what are active calories? What is the difference between active calories vs total calories?

First, a quick step back. 

Calories are a unit of energy. When we talk about calories in food, active calories, or burning calories in general, we are actually talking about kcals (kilocalories).

A single calorie is the amount of energy required to raise 1 g of water by 1°C, but in biological systems, the kilocalorie is used due to the orders of magnitude for the human body or large biological systems. 

The foods that we consume contain calories that are released when the bonds between the molecules in the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in these foods are broken down by the body.

Related: Calories Burned Per Activity Calculator (800+ Activities)

A person air punching with hand weights.

The body then makes use of these calories for energy to do all sorts of processes, such as digesting and metabolizing food, maintaining the heartbeat, breathing, and contracting and relaxing muscles so that we can walk, run, exercise in general, and so on.

So, what are active calories?

Active calories is a term that refers to the calories that you burn when you are doing something physical with your body, such as a planned workout like running, lifting weights, using an elliptical machine, etc. 

Daily step count, walking up and downstairs in your home, doing errands, and carrying things, all count towards active calories because you are moving your body to burn calories.

In contrast, passive calories, which factor into your total calories burned in a day or total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), are the calories that your body burns without you needing to move or engage in some physical activity.

This would include things like the calories burned digesting and absorbing food—termed the thermic effect of food—and calories burned based on your BMR, or basal metabolic rate.

People doing lunges.

Your BMR is the number of calories your body must burn at a bare minimum for basic (basal) functions like breathing, maintaining a heartbeat to circulate blood to your tissues, and processing nutrients at rest to keep you alive.

This is distinct from the number of active calories you burn a day.

The American Council on Exercise reports that your BMR represents about 60-75% of the total calories you burn in a day, though it depends somewhat on how active you are both in terms of planned exercise as well as physical activity accumulated as you go about your day.

Related: Daily Calories And BMR Calculator

Factors that Affect How Many Active Calories You Should Burn Per Day

There are several factors that you have to consider before you can answer the question, “How many active calories should I burn a day?“

Here are the main factors that affect how many active calories you should burn per day:

Two seniors jogging.

#1: Age

Seniors often need to lower the number of active calories burned per day because it takes the body longer to recover from physical activity as you age.

Furthermore, appetite tends to decrease as you age, and many older adults consume fewer calories.

#2: Body Size and Composition 

The larger you are and the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn when you are physically active.

To that end, if you are overweight or obese according to your body mass index (BMI above 25 kg/m2) and you are trying to lose weight, you can aim for a higher number of active calories burned per day.

Related: BMI Calculator

A person running up stairs.

#3: Body Weight Goals and Diet

This is the biggest factor that affects how many active calories you should burn per day.

If you are trying to lose weight, you need to create the caloric deficit necessary to do so, so you will want to burn more active calories.

To lose one pound of body fat, you have to create a caloric deficit equivalent to 3500 calories.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should only aim to lose 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week for healthy, sustainable weight loss.

This means that the maximum daily caloric deficit you should strive for for healthy, sustainable fat loss is 500 to 1000 calories per day.

For weight maintenance, and particularly if you are trying to gain weight, you need to be mindful of how many active calories you are burning and make sure that you can eat enough to support your physical activity levels without losing weight.

People doing renegade rows.

Your diet plays a big role here because if you want to lose weight, but you do not want to adjust your diet and cut calories, you will need to burn more active calories per day to generate the caloric deficit necessary for fat loss.

On the other hand, if you are following a strict weight loss diet that restricts calories significantly, you will not need to burn as many active calories per day.

Remember, unless otherwise guided by a medical professional, the maximum caloric deficit per day should be about 1000 calories. 

This means that your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)—which includes your active calories, BMR, and thermic effect of food—should not be more than 1,000 calories more than what you are eating.

#4: Health Status

If you have a chronic health condition, are pregnant or breastfeeding, recovering from an eating disorder, etc., there may be circumstances where you need to limit the number of active calories you burn per day to maintain your body weight.

Anyone with a health condition should work with a medical provider to determine how many active calories you should burn a day.

A person doing a plank.

Related: Body Fat Calculator

Can Your Active Calories Burned a Day Be Too High?

While having a high active calories burned a day can be a great way to lose weight, improve your fitness, and improve your physical health, it is possible to overdo it and have too high of a daily active calories burn rate.

If you are too physically active and have a very high daily active calorie burn, coupled with a calorie-restricted diet, you can cause your metabolism to slow down due to a survival mechanism known as adaptive thermogenesis, which will kick in during times of a prolonged caloric deficit or an extreme caloric deficit. 

Essentially, your body goes into starvation mode

You will then start to burn fewer calories due to a drop in your basal metabolic rate (BMR). You may begin burning muscle mass to reduce your caloric needs because muscle burns more calories than fat.

Again, you want to be mindful of staying within that 500 to 1000 calorie deficit at most if you are trying to lose weight when increasing active calories burned and decreasing caloric intake through your diet.

People in a zumba class.

According to the 2020-2025 United States Dietary Guidelines, adult men should consume a minimum of 2,200–2,400 calories, while adult females should consume at least 1,600–1,800 calories per day to meet nutritional requirements. 

How Many Active Calories Should You Burn a Day?

As can be seen, there are a variety of factors you need to consider before you can answer the question—how many active calories should I burn per day?—for your own life.

With that said, it is generally recommended that most people aim to burn 400 to 500 active calories a day most days of the week.

Learn about some workouts that burn 500 calories here.

A person stretching.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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