How many exercise calories should I eat back?

When you exercise and burn calories, it can be tempting to “eat back” those calories by consuming additional food. However, the number of exercise calories you should actually eat back is a complicated issue without a one-size-fits-all answer. Eating back too few exercise calories could lead to excessive calorie restriction, hunger and nutritional deficiencies. But eating back too many can undermine your weight loss efforts. This article will provide research-based guidance on determining an appropriate calorie intake after exercise for weight loss, muscle gain or weight maintenance goals.

Should you eat back exercise calories?

Whether or not you need to eat back exercise calories depends on several factors:

Your weight loss goals

If your goal is weight loss, you likely don’t need to eat back all the calories you burned during exercise. This creates the necessary calorie deficit for shedding pounds. However, you still need adequate calories and nutrients to support health.

The intensity and duration of your workout

Higher intensity and longer duration workouts burn more calories, so you may need to eat back more of them. For instance, an intense 1-hour run can burn 700+ calories versus just 200 calories for a light 30-minute walk.

Your natural appetite after exercise

Vigorous exercise may suppress your appetite for a few hours but increase hunger later on. If you feel famished and unable to function after a hard workout, eating something is wise. But don’t use it as an excuse to overeat.

Your daily calorie needs

People with higher calorie requirements, like growing teenagers or very active adults, likely need to eat back more exercise calories than sedentary individuals trying to lose weight.

Overall, it’s not necessary or advisable to eat back every single calorie you burn during exercise. The optimal amount depends on your unique goals, activity levels and body.

How many calories are burned during exercise?

The number of calories burned during exercise depends on:

Your body weight

Heavier people burn more calories for the same exercise duration and intensity compared to lighter people.

Exercise duration

Longer exercise sessions burn more total calories than shorter ones.

Exercise intensity

More strenuous, higher intensity exercise burns calories faster than lower intensity activity.

Type of exercise

Some activities like running or swimming burn more calories per minute than others like yoga or golf.

As an example, here’s how many calories a 155 lb (70 kg) person would burn in one hour of exercise at different intensities (1):

Activity Intensity Calories burned (per hour)
Walking Light (2 mph) 210
Walking Moderate (3.5 mph) 280
Jogging Moderate (5 mph) 545
Running Vigorous (7 mph) 700

As you can see, running burns over 3 times as many calories as walking at a leisurely pace.

Should you eat back all exercise calories for weight loss?

If your goal is weight loss, research shows you likely don’t need to eat back all the calories burned during exercise:

Overestimating calories burned

Many people overestimate the number of calories they actually burn during exercise. Fitness trackers and gym equipment can overreport calorie burn (2). So if you eat back what your machine says you burned, you could erase your deficit.

Increased appetite after exercise

Vigorous exercise may increase hunger and cause you to unconsciously overeat. One study found people ate more calories after intense cardio compared to rest days (3).

Metabolic adaptations

Over time, your metabolism adapts to regular cardio by becoming more efficient. So the same workout burns fewer calories than it used to (4).

Fat loss benefits

Research confirms that not eating back all your exercise calories enhances fat loss. One study had participants do moderate cardio 5 days per week. Those who ate back none of the calories lost 3 times more fat than those who ate them all back (5).

So if fat loss is your goal, a good general guideline is to eat back no more than 30–50% of exercise calories, especially for moderate-to-high intensity and long-duration workouts.

Should you eat back all exercise calories for muscle gain?

If gaining muscle is your goal, eating back more of your exercise calories can help:

Increased calorie needs

You need a calorie surplus to build muscle. Vigorous weight training sessions can burn 300–600 calories. Not eating back enough of them could hinder muscle growth.

Improved recovery

Consuming protein and carbs soon after strength training enhances muscle repair and growth. It also replenishes glycogen stores used for energy.

Preventing overtraining

Without sufficient fuel, intense training takes a cumulative toll on your body. This can lead to fatigue, loss of strength and overtraining.

Aim to eat back 50–75% of your strength training calories to support muscle growth. Ensure you eat enough protein, the primary building block of muscle.

Should you eat back all exercise calories for weight maintenance?

If your goal is maintaining your current weight, eating back most of your exercise calories is likely wise:

Balancing energy needs

To stay the same weight, you need to balance calories consumed with calories burned. Not eating back exercise calories means you’ll lose weight.

Fueling your activity

Getting adequate calories gives you the energy to keep up your chosen exercise regimen and thrive. Too few calories can lead to fatigue.

Preventing adaptive thermogenesis

Sustained calorie restriction triggers adaptive thermogenesis. Your body adapts by reducing metabolic rate and burning fewer daily calories.

For weight maintenance, a good guideline is eating back about 75-90% of exercise calories, especially if you train intensely and for long durations. Adapt this based on your hunger, energy and weight over time.

Healthy calorie sources to eat back

What you eat after exercise is just as important as how much. Focus on whole, minimally processed sources of protein, carbs and healthy fats:

Lean protein

Such as chicken, fish, tofu, eggs, Greek yogurt and protein powder. Helps repair and build muscle tissues.

Fruits and vegetables

Provide hydration, antioxidants, fiber and vitamins/minerals to aid recovery.

Whole grains

Like quinoa, oats and brown rice. Contain fiber plus B vitamins for energy production.

Starchy carbs

Such as sweet or regular potatoes and beans. Help replenish glycogen to fuel muscles.

Healthy fats

Found in nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil and fatty fish. Support hormone regulation and reduce inflammation.

Avoid highly processed snack foods even if they seem convenient. The better your food quality, the better your recovery and results.

Should you eat back “bonus” activity calories?

In addition to dedicated exercise, daily activities like taking the stairs, walking more and fidgeting burn extra calories. These can add up significantly:

100 extra steps per day: 30 calories

Taking stairs instead of elevator: 65 calories

Fidgeting for 90 minutes: 100 calories

Pacing on a phone call: 50 calories

Because these bonus calories are hard to track precisely, it’s wise not to eat them back for weight loss. But no need to restrict food if you feel hungrier from an unusually active day.

For weight maintenance or muscle gain goals, you can be a bit more liberal about eating back extra activity calories.

Tips for determining your calorie needs after exercise

Here are some tips for fine-tuning how many exercise calories you should eat back for your goals:

Track calories burned more accurately

Use a heart rate monitor or talk test to estimate intensity level instead of machine readouts.

Adjust intake based on hunger

Eat back enough calories to feel satisfied and fueled for your next workout.

Monitor changes in weight

If your weight is trending up or down, adjust calorie intake accordingly.

Consider individual factors

Such as your body size, workout program, genetics and more. Tweak intake based on your unique needs.

Experiment over time

Gradually adjust how many exercise calories you eat back to find the right balance.

Be patient and listen to your body’s hunger and satiety cues when fine-tuning your personal calorie needs.


How many exercise calories you should eat back depends largely on your goals. For weight loss, eat back 30-50%, focusing on high quality nutrition. To build muscle, eat back 50-75% with sufficient protein. For weight maintenance, starting with 75-90% is a good guideline.

Monitor your hunger, energy and progress over time. Increase or reduce exercised calories as needed to achieve your desired results. Focus on whole foods and not just empty calories. With consistent training and smart nutrition, you will make progress towards your fitness goals.

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