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Apr 20, 2015

A few weeks ago, I presented at a Weight Management & Chronic Disease Teaching Day on “Exercise Considerations for Diabetes and Obesity.” I talked about calories burned during certain exercises, noting those that burn few and others that burn many.

At that time, I was counting calories to lose my holiday weight gain. (Which holiday? From Halloween to New Year’s!) To do this, I was staying below 1500 calories/day as we encourage for females in our weight-management program (1800 for males). This was a bit of a challenge that day since I wasn’t home with my own foods; a real-life situation for many patients/clients that are trying to lose weight. I had a bagel for breakfast (calorie-dense), was careful at the lunch buffet (salad bar and soup), and then got in the car to drive home. I got hungry, looked in my bag, and found a granola bar; a healthy snack but this bar had 190 calories. This isn’t too bad but, for a snack, it was taking lots of calories toward my total; too calorie-dense.

I reflected on my talk, the snack, and exercise. In our work as diabetes educators, we guide people toward exercises that suit their goals. If weight loss is part of the goal, we should encourage exercise that is efficient at burning calories; those that use lots of muscles, preferably of the arms, legs and trunk. The idea of “calorie-dense exercise” came to mind. We talk about calorie-dense or energy-dense foods; those that contain high amounts of calories per serving and should be limited if trying to lose weight. The same notion fits when thinking about choosing the best exercise to lose weight but opposite; try to choose “calorie-dense exercise.” What do you think about the phrase “calorie-dense exercise?” Can you think of a better term?

For example, if that person says “I am trying to lose my belly weight so I am doing 10 sit ups each day” or “I do stretches 3 times a week but am not losing weight,” we should be providing accurate information about other options that might better help them reach their goal.

By doing a search on a phone app or the computer, we can help the individual find an exercise that they might enjoy, that suits them, and that is “calorie-dense.” There will be individual variability depending on the person’s ability, weight, and intensity of the activity. Any exercise done for longer or higher intensity will burn more calories than shorter duration, lower intensity.

Below are some examples of calories (estimated) that a person weighing 200 pounds will burn when doing one hour of some common exercises/physical activities, from high calorie-dense to low calorie-dense. (If a person weighs less, they will burn fewer calories and if a person weighs more, they will burn more calories per minute.) We can lead an individual who is trying to lose weight go to a good source, put in their weight, and determine which exercises best suit their interests and needs.


Exercise/physical activity Calories burned (estimated) for a 200 pound individual over 30 minutes
Running, 5 mph
(12 min mile) 
Aerobic dance, high impact 695
Swimming laps, light or moderate 552
Water aerobics  524
Hiking, normal pace fields and hillsides  505
Walking 4 miles per hour (15 minute mile)  476
Elliptical, moderate effort  476
Aerobic dance, low impact  476
Ethnic dancing  429
Gardening, general, moderate effort  362
Walking 3 miles per hour (20 minute mile)  333
Resistance (weight) training  333
Bicycling, leisure (<10 mph)  333
Vacuuming, general, moderate  314
Pilates  286
Tai chi  286
Walking 2 miles per hour (30 minute mile)  267 
Yoga, hatha  228
Stretching, mild  219
Fishing from boat, sitting  191
Sitting quietly, watching television  124

(Adapted from: Ainsworth BE, et al. 2011 compendium of physical activities: A second update of codes and MET values. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011;43:1575.


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  1. Apr 12, 2018

    Great Article
  2. Apr 30, 2015

    Thank you Karen, This was helpful not only for my patients but in my own goal to lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle.
  3. Apr 25, 2015

    Thanks, Robert!
  4. Apr 22, 2015

    Great phrase and a much needed explanation, Karen! When it comes to weight loss with exercise, we often present a mis-match between the physical activity that we promote to our patients and the weight loss expectations/ goals that we give. For instance, park farther away, take the stairs........ Great behavior change recommendations but as you state, NOT CALORIE DENSE exercise like structured regimens based. Always consider the FITT principle (Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type) when setting weight loss goals! Not to mention progression!

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