Is active or total calories better?

When it comes to weight loss and overall health, focusing on calories burned through activity (active calories) may have more benefits than just tracking total calories consumed and expended. Understanding the differences between active and total calories can help you make better choices when planning meals and workouts.

What are active calories?

Active calories refer to the number of calories your body burns through exercise and movement. This includes activities like walking, running, swimming, strength training, and any other physical exertion. Your body burns calories to fuel these activities. The more intense the activity, the more active calories you burn.

Devices like fitness trackers and smartwatches can estimate active calories burned. They do this by tracking your movement with accelerometers and heart rate monitors. However, these estimations aren’t completely accurate. The only way to get a precise active calorie burn is through direct calorimetry, which measures heat production in a laboratory setting.

What are total calories?

Total calories refer to the complete number of calories your body uses in a day. This number includes:

  • Active calories burned through movement and exercise
  • Resting calories burned just to keep your body functioning (like breathing and digesting)
  • Calories consumed through food and beverages

To calculate your total daily calorie expenditure, you would add up your active calories burned and resting calories burned. Then subtract the calories you consumed through food and drinks.

Tracking total calories can help you create a calorie deficit to lose weight. You need to burn more calories than you consume. Apps and devices can estimate your total calories burned, but these numbers are only an approximation.

Active calories vs total calories for weight loss

For weight loss, creating a calorie deficit is key. This means burning more calories than you eat. You can achieve a deficit through diet, exercise, or a combination of both.

Monitoring active calories burned through exercise helps ensure you’re burning enough through physical activity. But you also need to consider the calories consumed. Tracking total calories helps you create a deficit through diet. Focusing on just one and not the other can limit results.

Here’s an example:

  • Bill runs 4 miles per day, burning 400 active calories.
  • But he consumes 3,000 total calories through meals.
  • His body burns 2,000 calories through resting metabolism.

So in Bill’s case:

  • Active calories burned: 400
  • Resting calories burned: 2,000
  • Calories consumed: 3,000

To calculate total calories:

  • Total calories burned = Active (400) + Resting (2,000) = 2,400
  • Total calories consumed = 3,000

Since Bill’s total calories consumed (3,000) exceeds his total calories burned (2,400), he’s eating at a calorie surplus. This can lead to weight gain, even though he burns 400 active calories through running.

Bill needs to focus on reducing his total calories consumed to create a deficit. Adding more cardio can also increase his active calorie burn.

Benefits of tracking active vs total calories

Here are some potential benefits of focusing on each type of calorie expenditure:

Benefits of tracking active calories

  • Helps ensure you’re burning enough through physical activity
  • Motivates you to exercise more or increase intensity
  • Provides workout targets or goals
  • Improves cardiovascular and muscular fitness
  • Increases resting metabolism over time as you build muscle mass

Benefits of tracking total calories

  • Creates accountability for your diet
  • Helps you identify high calorie foods to limit
  • Makes you aware of every calorie going into your body
  • Allows you to create a clear daily calorie deficit
  • Promotes portion control

For the best results, experts recommend tracking both active and total calories. This approach combines exercise and diet for maximum weight loss.

Active calories and weight lifting

Active calories are often associated with cardiovascular exercise like running or biking. But weight lifting also burns a significant amount of active calories. This can boost your calorie burn as you build muscle.

Here’s a breakdown of active calories burned through 30 minutes of common weight lifting exercises:

Exercise Active Calories Burned (30 mins)
Weight lifting (general) 112
Squats 87
Bench press 77
Deadlifts 102

As you can see, common weight lifting moves can torch a significant amount of calories. And heavier compound lifts like deadlifts or squats burn even more because they work larger muscle groups.

Lifting weights also builds muscle. Adding muscle boosts your resting metabolism, meaning your body burns more calories around the clock.

So don’t just focus on cardio when aiming to increase active calorie burn. A balanced exercise routine that combines weights and cardio is most effective.

Active calories and HIIT workouts

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is another great option for burning active calories efficiently. HIIT involves short bursts of intense exercise alternated with lower intensity recovery periods.

Here’s a comparison of active calories burned during 30 minutes of HIIT versus steady state moderate cardio:

Workout Type Active Calories Burned (30 mins)
HIIT 387
Jogging (5mph) 205

As you can see, HIIT style training scorches nearly twice as many calories as steady state cardio. This makes it extremely time efficient for calorie and fat burning.

HIIT also provides cardiovascular benefits, boosts metabolism, and builds muscle similarly to strength training. It’s easy to incorporate into any exercise routine by adding short high effort intervals.

Setting active calorie goals

Active calories provide a useful metric for setting exercise goals and tracking progress. Here are some tips for setting active calorie goals:

  • Gradually increase active calorie targets over time as your fitness improves.
  • Aim for at least 150 active calories per workout session.
  • Shoot for 300-400+ active calories for longer vigorous workouts.
  • Try to burn 2000-3500 active calories per week minimum.
  • Sync your active calorie burn with your weight loss rate for optimal deficit.
  • Adjust goals by body size and current fitness level.

These are general guidelines, but you may need higher or lower goals based on your individual needs. Tracking progress over time and adjusting as needed is key.

Should you eat back exercise calories?

A common question when ramping up exercise is whether you should eat back the active calories burned. There are conflicting opinions on this.

The benefit of eating back some activity calories is it helps refuel your body, prevents excessive hunger, and provides energy for your workouts. This is especially important with intense or frequent training.

However, fitness trackers tend to overestimate calorie burn. So if you eat back all the calories, you could undo your deficit. This may prevent weight loss.

Here are some best practices on whether or not to eat back exercise calories:

  • Only eat back 50-75% of estimated active calorie burn at maximum.
  • Focus your extra calories on protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
  • Reduce calorie intake elsewhere if you are not losing weight.
  • Listen to your hunger levels and refuel when needed.
  • Adjust your intake based on your rate of weight loss over weeks.

Finding the right balance takes some trial and error. In general, eat back some calories burned through exercise, but not all. Monitor your weight loss progress to guide your decisions.

Should you track calories burned from steps?

Pedometers and activity trackers calculate active calories burned from your steps. But these estimations are not very accurate without additional sensors like heart rate monitors.

Without heart rate data, devices often overestimate calorie burn from steps. This is especially true with lower intensity walking.

For best results, sync your activity tracker with a heart rate strap or fitness watch. This provides more data for an accurate calorie burn estimate. Or use calorie values from purposeful exercise sessions rather than daily steps.

Relying solely on steps-based calorie burn for your deficit can prevent weight loss. Focus more on total calories consumed and use step counts for activity motivation.

Should you eat fewer calories on rest days?

Your calorie needs fluctuate day to day based on your activity levels. So you may wonder whether you should reduce calories on less active rest days. There are a few approaches:

  • Average daily target: Aim for the same moderate calorie target daily regardless of exercise. This averages out your needs.
  • Active day surplus: Eat extra calories on workout days to refuel. Reduce on other days.
  • Listen to your body: Adjust based on hunger and energy levels each day.

In general, slightly higher calories on active days and lower on rest days aligns well with your body’s needs. But an average target can also work. Try different methods and see what feels best long term.

Should you track calories burned from NEAT?

NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This refers to calories burned through daily movement like:

  • Fidgeting
  • Walking around your home or office
  • Doing household chores
  • Taking the stairs
  • Active hobbies like gardening

NEAT calories add up significantly over the course of a day. But accurately tracking them can be difficult without sophisticated lab equipment.

General activity trackers provide a very rough estimate. But they don’t capture small micromovements accurately.

Your best bet is to use a daily step goal to motivate NEAT movement instead of logging the calorie burn. Things like getting up to walk around regularly and taking the stairs help boost NEAT.

Should you track calories burned from strength training?

Logging the active calories you burn during focused strength training workouts can be beneficial. As shown earlier, lifts like squats and deadlifts can incinerate calories. Tracking this burn provides useful data on your workout intensity and progress.

However, calories burned during NEAT activities like carrying groceries or household chores is nearly impossible to quantify. Devices lack the context to make accurate estimates here. You’re better off focusing on completing the activity rather than logging unreliable calorie values.


Tracking both active and total calories can optimize weight loss as part of an exercise and diet plan. Active calories help ensure you burn enough through movement. Total calories allow you to create a daily deficit through diet.

For best results, aim to burn at least 150-400 active calories through focused exercise sessions. Get at least 2,000-3,500 calories per week. Then monitor total calories to maintain a deficit. Adjust intake based on rate of weight loss and hunger levels.

Using this combined calorie burning approach can help maximize fat loss and improve your overall fitness. Consistency over time with both exercise and diet is key for success.

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