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With the popularity of fitness trackers and at-home fitness equipment (like treadmills and stationary bikes), the number of calories you burn during each workout is front and center. But how important is this metric and is it something you should really be paying attention to?
People often ask me what exercises burn the most calories — and if it even matters how many calories they burn during a workout. I tell my clients that while calories are interesting to note, they are not the sole indicator of how effective a workout is.
I prefer that people focus on how they feel during a workout: Do you feel winded? Have you broken a sweat? Do you feel like you’re making progress in the long term with endurance or strength? These things are more indicative of how effective your workout is than the caloric burn. That being said, yes, there are certain exercises that are more effective at burning calories than others.
What exercises burn the most calories?
Gone are the days of the strict “calories in, calories out” methodology. For weight loss, and specifically for women with hormonal issues or weight challenges, that school of thought does not always yield the desired results. That said, here is the approximate number of calories that someone who weighs 150 pounds can expect to burn doing the following exercises:
- 30 minutes of jump rope (moderate/fast pace): 375 calories
There’s a reason every gym has a bunch of jump ropes hanging by the weight rack. The aerobic activity can help you lose fat, build muscle strength and improve motor skills and agility — and burn 375 calories an hour, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Because jumping and swinging a rope requires you to call on your core for balance, a jump rope workout is a great way to work your abs, too. Give it a try with this 15-minute jump rope workout for beginners.
- 30 minutes on a stationary bike (moderate-intense pace): 250-380 calories
Cycling is a great cardiovascular exercise, and spin classes like Peloton have developed a cult following for their ability to motivate people to work up a sweat. Depending on the intensity with which you peddle, you can burn anywhere from 250-380 calories per half-hour cycling session, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). If you’re new to stationary cycling, here’s everything you need to know before you hop on the bike. If you prefer to take your bike on the move, a 30-minute ride at a moderate pace burns about 205 calories, according to the AHA.
- 30 minutes running (10-12 minute pace): 330 calories
Many people who have been walking for awhile like to introduce jogging to increase the intensity of their workout. Jogging is a more high-impact cardio activity that will burn about 330 calories in 30 minutes, according to the AHA — and upping your speed to running at 10 mph burns a whopping 640 calories.
- 30 minutes walking (very brisk pace): 306 calories
Good news for those who hate running: According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE) walking at a fast pace of 5 mph burns almost as many calories as jogging. Power walking entails moving at a quick speed and getting your arms involved, which burns more calories than walking at a slower pace. On days when you need to take things a little slower, walking at a moderate pace still burns 160 calories in 30 minutes, according to the AHA. Walking at any speed has important health benefits. In fact, a recent study found that walking just 4,000 steps a day started to reduce the risk of dying from any cause, while walking just 2,337 steps a day reduced the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
- 30 minutes calisthenics: 272 calories
Calisthenics is strength training that uses just your body weight. Bodyweight strength exercises are a great way to build muscle and lose weight, if that’s your goal. Plus, the AHA recommends incorporating strength workouts into your routine at least twice a week. Intense calisthenics, like the exercises done in bootcamps and HIIT workouts, can burn 272 calories in a 30-minute session, according to ACE. Less intense calisthenics done at a more moderate pace burn 119 calories in 30 minutes.
- 30 minutes climbing stairs: 272 calories
Most people have seen the leering tower next to the treadmills. The stair climber features a rotating belt of stairs with handlebars that allows you to climb a never-ending staircase. If you’re a fan of sweating it out on the StairMaster, good news: That hard work burns some serious calories. The stair climber is a cardio and strength workout that recruits your entire body. Climbing stairs can burn 272 calories in 30 minutes, according to ACE.
Dance cardio has become a popular workout for its ability to make cardio exercise fun. According to ACE, a 30-minute dance session — done at a fast pace — burns almost 200 calories. If your favorite dance cardio class incorporates HIIT training or bodyweight strength moves, you’re likely burning even more. Give it a try with this fun 10-minute dance cardio routine or this 28-minute class from celebrity trainer Isaac Boots.
- 30 minutes weight training: 100-200 calories
It’s recommended to add strength training to your routine twice a week for a reason: Building strength in your muscles improves bone density, increases flexibility in the joints, improves balance, prevents injury, speeds up the metabolism and burns calories. According to ACE, a 30-minute weight-training session can burn 100-200 calories, depending on the intensity of your movements. Don’t forget that muscle burns more calories than fat, which means that by building muscle you’re boosting your metabolism and burning more calories at rest!
- 30 minutes yoga: 144 calories
Hatha yoga — a style of yoga done at a slower, more controlled pace — burns almost 150 calories per 30-minute session according to the USDA. While it may be lower on the calorie burn list, yoga boasts important benefits like increasing flexibility, improving heart health, reducing pain and improving mental health. The AHA identifies balance and flexibility work as an important part of a healthy workout routine and recommends incorporating it weekly. Expect to burn more calories with vinyasa yoga, which is a style of yoga that connects each movement with your breath and moves at a faster pace. New to yoga? Try it with this 5-minute yoga flow to wake you up in the morning or 10 chair yoga poses.
Don’t let calories trump how your body feels
The numbers above may lead someone to ditch yoga for a spin class or force themselves to run instead of walk. But how many calories we burn doesn’t reflect what our body needs. Yes, you can hop on your spin bike and burn more calories than a yoga class, but you’ll be foregoing flexibility, toning and mental-health benefits that your body may be craving. The best workout plan is one that makes you feel good — I never recommend sacrificing that just for the sake of burning more calories. I encourage my clients to feel empowered and to tap into what their bodies need. One day that may be a leisurely walk and the next it may be an intense spin class — and both are solid workout choices.
Using calories burned as motivation
Just like daily steps, setting a calorie-burn goal can turn your exercise into a game and motivate you to get moving. However, the number of calories you want to burn through exercise will vary based on your diet, body composition and goals (are you trying to lose weight? Improve endurance?). So if you are going to closely monitor your calorie burn and aim to hit a certain number, I do suggest working with a trainer to determine what a healthy calorie burn goal is for you. I also want to warn against becoming hyper-focused on calories — this can spiral into an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. If tracking calories burned is fun for you, that’s fine. But if it becomes another stressor or you find yourself feeling discouraged when you don’t burn a certain amount, ditch it.
Ask yourself: Am I reaching my fitness goals?
This is the main question I always ask: Do you feel like your workout routine is helping you reach your goals? Calories are only one way to track the effectiveness of a workout. If you are seeing results on the scale, your clothes fit better or your energy levels and sleep have improved, those are other important signs that your workouts are working for you. However, if you are someone who overeats and consumes more calories than your body needs, tracking how many calories you burn can be helpful in becoming more aware of how you fuel and move your body.
Having a general sense of how many calories you are burning when moving your body is great. But remember, it is only one measure of a workouts intensity and effectiveness and shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all when it comes to rating a workout or choosing which type of exercise to do. For a well-rounded workout routine, focusing on how your body feels and the progress you’re making toward your goals over time is a much healthier approach.