Should I use active or total calories?

What is the difference between active and total calories?

The main difference between active and total calories is that active calories refer specifically to the calories you burn through exercise and movement, while total calories refer to all the calories you burn in a day including through basic bodily functions like breathing and digesting food.

Active calories make up just a portion of your total daily calorie burn. For example, you might burn 300 calories during a workout, but your total calorie burn for the day including your basal metabolic rate and normal daily activities may be around 2,000 calories.

How are active calories calculated?

Active calories are calculated based on your heart rate and movement during exercise. Devices like fitness trackers use algorithms that estimate how many calories you’re burning based on your personal stats like age, weight, gender and heart rate zones reached during workouts.

The more intense the exercise, the higher your heart rate goes and the more active calories you burn. High intensity interval training tends to burn more active calories than low-to-moderate steady state cardio. Strength training also burns active calories which increase as you lift heavier weights.

Activities are assigned a MET (metabolic equivalent) value based on their intensity. The more intense the activity, the higher the MET value and the more calories burned per minute. Running may have a MET value of 8 while weightlifting has a MET of 6. This is factored into active calorie estimates.

What counts toward active calorie burn?

Any movement or exercise above what you’d do during light daily activity counts toward active calorie burn, including:

– High intensity interval training
– Steady state cardio like running, cycling or rowing
– Strength training with weights, resistance bands, etc.
– Sports like basketball, soccer, tennis
– Higher intensity yoga/Pilates/Barre classes
– Hiking up steep hills
– Stair climbing
– Dancing
– High-energy group fitness classes

Generally, the more movement and the higher your heart rate, the more active calories you’ll burn.

What are total daily calories?

Your total daily calorie burn includes all the calories you expend in a full 24-hour period. This includes:

– Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): Your BMR represents the minimum number of calories your body needs to perform essential functions like breathing, blood circulation, nutrient processing, cell repair and more. It makes up the bulk of your total calorie burn, accounting for 50-70% of calories out.

– NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis): NEAT represents the calories burned through regular daily movement like walking, fidgeting, standing and all activities besides exercise. NEAT may account for 15-50% of total calorie burn.

– Exercise/Active Calories: As discussed above, active calories make up the remainder of total calorie burn – generally 15-30% of the total.

– Digestion: The calories burned digesting, absorbing and metabolizing the food you eat makes up around 5-15% of total calories out.

How are total daily calories calculated?

Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is most accurately measured in a metabolic chamber where CO2 expenditure is analyzed. However, there are a number of equations that can provide rough TDEE estimates:

– Mifflin St-Jeor Equation: Uses your age, height, weight and sex to estimate BMR and multiplies it by an activity factor between 1.2-1.9 based on your activity levels.

– Katch-McArdle Formula: Uses your lean body mass and resting heart rate to estimate BMR and multiplies it by an activity factor.

– WHO/FAO/UNU Equation: Developed by the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and United Nations University. Uses weight, height, age and sex to estimate BMR.

– Harris-Benedict Equation: One of the most popular equations that uses height, weight, age and sex to calculate BMR.

Most TDEE calculators use a version of one of these equations. However, they only provide estimates. Tracking your intake and weight changes for a few weeks can help you get a more accurate picture of your total daily calorie needs.

Should you focus on active or total calories?

For purely fitness and workout purposes, tracking active calories burned can provide useful metrics on the intensity and calorie burn during specific workouts and activities. This can help with monitoring progress over time.

However, for purposes of weight loss or maintenance, your total daily calorie burn matters more than just your active calorie burn. Here are some reasons it’s important to consider total daily calorie expenditure:

– Weight management is about calories in versus calories out. Even if you burn 500 active calories in a workout, if you’re total daily expenditure is only 2000 calories, eating 2500 calories means a calorie surplus and potential weight gain regardless of exercise.

– Focusing only on exercise calories can undermine the importance of NEAT. Small efforts like taking the stairs or walking more can significantly increase daily NEAT calories.

– It’s very easy to overeat calories back after a workout. Without considering TDEE, its easy to justify eating those 500 calories burned during exercise without realizing you’ve exceeded your total daily needs.

– BMR accounts for over half of all calories out for most people. Understanding your basal needs provides a more accurate picture of energy balance.

– All calories count equally towards your total daily expenditure, whether they come from exercise, NEAT, BMR or digestion. Each component contributes to the full energy balance equation.

How to use active and total calories together

Tracking both active and total daily calories burned can provide useful insight into your full energy balance picture:

– Use an activity tracker or HR monitor to get estimates of active calories during workouts. This quantifies your exercise efforts.

– Use an online TDEE calculator or metabolic tracking to estimate your total daily calorie burn. Alternately, use intake tracking over a few weeks while monitoring weight to gauge total expenditure needs.

– Track both active and total calories out, and aim to be in a slight calorie deficit each day for weight loss. The deficit can come through increased exercise, NEAT and/or lower calorie intake.

– Don’t “eat back” all your active calories after a workout. Fuel appropriately for recovery, but be mindful of staying below your total daily calorie goal.

– Work on increasing NEAT as well as active calories for greater calorie burn. Go for walks, take the stairs, fidget, stand more etc.

– Monitor weekly weight loss over time. Adjust your estimated TDEE and calorie intake goals based on an average weekly rate of 0.5% to 1% loss of body weight.

– Periodically recheck your TDEE as your weight changes to ensure you’re maintaining an appropriate deficit.

Example active vs total calorie comparison

Here is an example to illustrate the difference between active and total calorie burn for a 150 lb moderately active woman:

Activity Active Calories Burned
45 min HIIT workout 400 calories
1 hour weight training 260 calories
Total Active Calories 660 calories
Component Total Calories Burned
Basal Metabolic Rate 1350 calories
NEAT (light daily activity) 350 calories
Active Exercise 660 calories
Digestion 100 calories
Total Calories Burned 2460 calories

This example shows that while the active workout calories burned were 660 calories, her total calorie expenditure for the full day was 2460 calories. Focusing solely on the active calories could lead this woman to overeat if she tries to “replace” those workout calories burned, exceeding her total daily needs.

Should you eat back exercise calories?

Due to the discrepancies between active and total calorie burn, most experts recommend not automatically eating back all exercise calories.

Here are some general guidelines on whether or not to eat back exercise calories:

– If you’re sedentary aside from planned workouts, eat back about 25-50% of active calories to fuel recovery without overeating.

– If you have an active job or are active most of the day outside exercise, do not eat back any active calories.

– If doing high intensity or endurance training for over an hour, can eat back up to 75% of active calories burned to adequately refuel.

– If following a reverse diet to increase intake coming off a diet, can eat back most active calories as metabolic rate increases.

– If feeling very fatigued, lightheaded or struggling with appetite after intense training, eat back more active calories as needed for recovery.

Again, tracking weekly weight changes is the best gauge for whether calorie intake targets need adjusting up or down. The goal is slow steady weight loss over time, not aggressive restriction.

Active calories for fitness tracking vs. total calories for weight loss

To summarize key points:

– Active calories are useful for quantifying effort during workouts and fitness progression over time. Track them using wearables for exercise metrics.

– Total daily calories give the full picture for weight loss and maintenance. Use calculators and metabolic tracking to determine your TDEE.

– Consider both active and total calorie burn when making nutrition decisions for recovery and weight goals. Do not automatically eat back all active calories burned.

– A slight daily deficit of around 250-500 calories accounting for total expenditure, not just exercise, promotes sustainable long-term fat loss.

– Monitor weight weekly while adjusting total daily intake up or down as needed to lose at a moderate pace.

So in conclusion, consider active calories for fitness tracking but base your nutrition decisions around your total daily energy expenditure determined using your BMR, activity levels, NEAT and metabolic tracking over time. This creates the optimal calorie deficit for consistent weight management.

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