Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
10 Oct

Why You Shouldn’t Burn More Than 4,000 Calories a Week Through Exercise

Everyone agrees that being sedentary is bad and unhealthy and that being active is good and healthy. The research agrees, too; regular physical activity leads to good health, longer lives, and an improved ability to function throughout normal life. When you’re able to walk to the store, carry your groceries home, take the stairs, get out of bed without struggling, pack enough lean mass to survive a stay in the hospital, and ride your bike when you want to, you’re a functional human being, and remaining active on a regular basis helps maintain this state so crucial to basic health and happiness.

But what’s often hidden amidst the blanket pro-exercise sentiment is that too much exercise can have the opposite effect on health – people can really take physical activity too far. I talk about this all the time, so much that you’ve probably got “Chronic Cardio” emblazoned across your brain and shake your head when you see some hapless soul in spandex and the latest runners heaving himself down the street, heel first. I know just how bad that stuff can be, because I did it for a large part of my life. You’ve all heard that story before, though, about how even though training cardio hard gets you “fitter” in one sense of the word, it’s actually counterproductive for a healthy long life (doubly so if you want to have some lean muscle mass and pain-free joints in your later years).

We’ve seen hints in studies over the years:

One recent study found that in overweight sedentary subjects, moderate exercise was more efficient at helping them burn body fat – including a reduction that was far greater than what could be explained by the caloric expenditure – while intense exercise induced a “compensatory” response that hampered fat loss.

Another study examined weekly caloric expenditure via aerobic exercise in a group of former athletes and non-athletes and plotted it against mortality, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension. Death rate was highest in groups 1 and 2, the ones with the least amount of caloric expenditure, but group 6 (along with 1), which expended 2,500+ calories per week, had the highest rates of heart disease and high blood pressure. Those who exercised moderately lived the longest and were healthiest.

In a study on the exercise habits of college alumni and their impact on mortality, researchers found that up to 3,500 calories expended per week conferred a survival benefit, but at calorie expenditures greater than that, mortality began to tick upwards.

And in a pair of recent studies, researchers found that moderate exercise – jogging up to 20 miles a week at an 11 minute mile pace – offered the most protection against early mortality. Running more than 20 miles a week, or running at a 7 minute mile pace, offered fewer mortality benefits. In the second paper, Danish scientists found that people who spent one to two and a half hours jogging at a “slow or average pace” lived longer than those who didn’t run at all or who ran at a faster pace. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist and presenter at the Ancestral Health Symposium, was quoted as saying that “after about 45 to 60 minutes a day, you reach a point of diminishing returns.”

It’s pretty clear that once exercise gets to be “too much,” the benefits are reduced, or even reversed, and it becomes a chronic stressor that reduces overall wellness.

And so I thought it’d be helpful to give you guys a guideline for determining just how much is too much. This is a guideline I’ve had great success with, whether I’m training myself or clients: no more than 4,000 calories expended through focused exercise per week.

Is this a hard and fast rule? No, not exactly. Going somewhat above is probably okay.

Is it concretely established in numerous studies? There are hints toward its veracity in the literature, but nothing explicit. This is mostly stuff gleaned through experience (but the research does bear it out).

Does it apply to everyone, everywhere, whatever their goals may be? No. Someone training for the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon is going to require more if they hope to compete.

But as a general rule for the general population, it really does work well as a guideline. Burning 4,000 calories through focused exercise appears to be the cut off point (yeah, you could go a bit under or over, but the point is that we need to draw the line somewhere) after which health – including immune function and oxidative stress load – and quality of life – including free time, energy levels, and productivity – begin to take hits. Your performance may increase, and this might be worth it to you if your goals are primarily performance-oriented, but there’s a trade off. Keith Norris often writes about this idea, calling it the health-performance curve. I’m inclined to agree with him.

So – what does 4,000 calories worth of expenditure in a week look like, exactly?

Well, the simplest way I’ve found to describe it is in terms of road miles. If you’re doing 40 miles a week running or 80 miles a week cycling, you’re hitting roughly 4,000 calories. We don’t just run or bike, of course. We lift weights, we circuit train, we engage in metabolic conditioning, we row, we wrestle, we hike, we sprint, we box, we swim.

You could use an online calculator like FitDay or ExRx to get a better idea. For a 185 pound, 6 foot tall person to burn just around 4,000 calories a week, he could get away with:

  • Running six miles.
  • Lifting weights intensely for two hours total.
  • Biking 13 miles.
  • Playing an hour and a half of field sports (soccer, rugby, football, Ultimate).

That’s a pretty solid week of activity, I’d say, but it certainly isn’t excessive, and it would provide a far more well-rounded sense of fitness than just pounding away at the road for 40 miles. Feel free to use the (admittedly imperfect) tools linked above to figure out what your regular caloric expenditure looks like.

Not all activity “counts” toward your caloric expenditure. Taking a 30-minute stroll to the store doesn’t count as focused work. Taking a 60-minute hike up in the hills does. Going for a nice relaxing ride on the bike around the neighborhood doesn’t count, but doing twenty miles in a single day does. Carrying the groceries from the car to the house doesn’t count; carrying the groceries from the store to the house just might, though. “You know it when you see it” applies here, so use your better judgment.

I’d also suggest that expending your calories through a variety of activities is “better” than expending them through a single activity. As shown above, lifting weights, going for a run, biking a bit, and playing sports is more fun and probably less stressful than expending all your calories through running, which is veering into Chronic Cardio territory. A calorie (expended) is not a calorie (expended).

Look – exercise as often and as intensely as it pleases you. Just be aware that, in my opinion (having looked at the literature and drawn from my own experience training myself and others), 4,000 calories of focused work per week is the cut off point after which health and happiness begin to suffer for most people. If you’re an athlete whose only job is to train, and you’re privy to massages and cutting edge recovery techniques and everything else, then you’ll be able to handle more work. You’ll be far fitter than the average person and thus better equipped to mitigate the oxidative fallout from excessive exercise. But for members of the general population who have to contend with the day-to-day stress of living in this world, getting up early to feed the kids and beat traffic, balancing exercise time with work time with family time with personal time, sneaking peeks at the latest blog post, hoping to get enough sleep to make it through the next day? You’re going to have a harder time recovering from the stress of a 4,000+ caloric expenditure to make it worth your while.

That’s it for today, folks. Let me hear what you have to say about this 4,000 calories a week guideline. Do you agree? Disagree? Wholeheartedly forsake everything that I henceforth write? Let me hear all about it!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. The reason it’s counterproductive to burning fat because your body starts release cortisol. So if you are doing too much, your body stops burning fat. From a composiiton standpoint, you’re getting fatter and losing muscle.

    Brian wrote on October 10th, 2012
  2. I think it makes sense, but how do you figure it for people significantly above the norm. I’m overweight now but when I’ve been in great shape I’m pushing 240 lbs (at 6’3)

    My guess is 5000 would be a better guide for me doing the exact same activities Mark lists at the end of the article.

    Jeff D wrote on October 10th, 2012
  3. Very sound advice – i believe way to many of us over train especially those not in “sport specific training – While not enough emphasis goes into proper eating lifestyle. I would also make the correlation that if loosing 2 lbs a week seems reasonable you could extrapolate that of that choloric adjustment appropriating about 50% to activity/exercise and 50% to caloric reduction that you would theoretically would come to the support of this 4K expenditure conclusion

    Eric James wrote on October 10th, 2012
  4. I believe dancing should be included in any healthy activity. It is a time-honored remedy for ailments. (think traditional healers) Plus, if you are doing it with joy, it’s a whole lotta fun! It is my firm belief that any of these activities if done with joy have value added! Thanks Mark for bringing another thoughtful topic. Now let’s dance!!

    Suze wrote on October 10th, 2012
  5. hmmm. I tend to run four days out of the week. Of late they have been 3 mile runs paced around 6:30/mi. Being on a very physically active night crew schedule has left me wanting to spend less time on my feet; however, even when I run 5+ miles I tend to still push a 7:00/mi. I don’t like to take it easy. 7:30/mi is my relax pace. Can this, over a prolonged time, affect vascular or arterial health or elasticity/internal organs/heart rhythm or vigor?
    I am about 175lbs, 22 years of age, and generally have prehypertension during systole (avg bp 130/80). Max heart rate during my runs is usually about 180.
    Apologies for the intricate question, but I gather, from your dialect in previous posts, that you enjoy queries such as this.

    Wayne wrote on October 10th, 2012
  6. Wow,I guess this is just what I needed to read…After years of chronic cardio (90 mins. plus most days, sometimes 3-4 hours), I’ve started cutting back as there are more and more signs that my immunity is suffering, including a low wbc count. I also used to crave sweets and nuts with the outmost intensity. There were days when I’d eat 3-4 lbs of nuts in the space of a few hours! Right now I do 45 mins. spinning twice a week, intense crosfit type training 3 times, weights 3 times. Apart from that I cycle arond 45-50 mins. 5 times a week (picking up my son from school) and walk about 1.5 hrs 5 days a week.( I’m 5’6″ and weigh around 110 lbs, which I’m happy with, so my weight is not an issue). Does anyone know if it’s still too much or is it ok?

    Foxygodzi wrote on October 10th, 2012
  7. I just left a 70-hour-work-week-job, to find more balance in my life… including to re-introduce a regular exercise program back in! (I’ve stayed on-board with a more primal way of eating, Thank God!) In light of this, I truly find it a comfort — and a relief! – to be reminded here that the opposite extreme (too Much hard exercise) is neither helpful nor productive for the 53 year old non-athlete that I’ve become! This is a Great time for me to hear Mark’s words on Exercise Moderation for the general public. Thanks, Mark!

    Harpsinger wrote on October 10th, 2012
  8. I started the Primal workout back in early July and promptly snapped my Achilles tendon in the 2nd series of sprints. I used to fall into the Chronic Cardio zone, running 30+ miles a week, so I probably overdid it transitioning back to sprints (I was a 400M sprinter 34 years ago). I’ve had 2 Orthopedists tell me that sprints should be out due to a bad lower back and now the Achilles repair, so I guess I’ll be looking for alternatives to burn my 4K calories a week.

    Jim wrote on October 10th, 2012
  9. Most people generally over-estimate how many calories they are burning. I am fitness pro teaching 15 classes per week. I average 150 -400 calories per class depending on format which ranges from senior fitness to hard core cycle classes. Even at this level if I average 250/class this only takes me to 3750/wk.

    My point being, the average grok does not need to worry about this. I also have my own fitness plan going on which probably adds another 1000 calories per week. I rarely experience signs of over-training (repressed immune function, insomnia, joint pain) I am 52 and plan to keep moving like this as long as I feel good about it physically and mentally. I may be the exception to the rule. Thanks mom and dad for the hearty peasant stock I come from!

    sher wrote on October 10th, 2012
  10. This post is a little confusing to me. It seems to focus a lot on how to incorporate the right amount of chronic cardio/endurance training? After 20+ years as a distance runner and triathlete, I almost exclusively walk a sprint now (for locomotion training). I agree with Mark (or thought I did?) that these are more likely the natural gaits for homosapiens most of the time – that we were, in fact, NOT “born to run”, at least not long distances at a time. Isn’t PB and PBF about getting away from medium/high exertion, long duration? Long being more than a minute or so?

    Jim wrote on October 10th, 2012
  11. This is so funny because I can tell the age by the commentary. The under 40’s are fighting to defend their chronic cardio as I would in my 20’s & 30’s back when I would do 2-a-days and was never sore or injured. Invincible, believing it would never end!

    Then the 40’s arrive… Sometimes, I lie awake wondering if my hamstrings will ever completely heal, or if I just pushed too hard for too many years…

    Paula wrote on October 10th, 2012
    • +1

      Elaine wrote on October 10th, 2012
    • Agree. Never thought I would, but I solidly agree. I love, love, love running, and for my entire adult life, I thought it was normal for me to get 4-6 bad colds followed by bronchitis per year. Still love an occasional longer run with a friend, but mainly walk and sprint and do pullups and lots of incidental movements. I lost 10 pounds, co-workers say I look really younger, I’ve been told I have a “slammin’ body” and I got one brief cold back in February that I knocked down in FOUR DAYS. That was 2 months after quitting regular running and wheat and high carbs. I’m 47. And I endorse this article. And I can STILL kick most twenty-somethings’ butts in any given race whenever I choose. And I do.

      Joy Beer wrote on October 10th, 2012
      • Hmm…so you completely changed two aspects of your life (diet and exercise), had a good cold year, and assume that it was the reduced exercise that did it? Ok…

        Mark wrote on February 19th, 2014
  12. Excessive exercise can lead to a host of problems. Excessive cortisol, increased inflammation, depletion of micro nutrients, leptin imbalance, stress of the GI because of the constant need for more cal then normal. All of which can lead to fat gain, a halting of fat loss, and health problems. Everyone varies as to when exercise loses is benefits and starts actually hurting your body, but that 60 min per session as a guideline is very good.

    Also stop running on pavement!

    Bobert wrote on October 10th, 2012
  13. I am 64 year old woman, eating primal since last November. I have been working Dr. Sears P.A.C.E. interval program–using my basement stairs–since first of June. My resting heart rate was 72 at that time. After 3 months of just 2 or 3 times a week, varying my interval and recovery times, and taking less than 1/2 hr. total per workout, my resting heart rate was and is 60 bpm now. I do some Nordic walking and a little lifting–which I plan to increase some. We went hiking up and down (including some climbing)very hilly and rocky wooded areas on Monday and I just smoked it. My heart stayed steady and slow and my legs wanted to do more I felt so energetic and incredible. My husband was amazed. I used to be guilty of chronic cardio and was a jogger from 1968 through middle 1980’s. Glad I quit that because I might be looking at knee replacement by now. Now that it’s cooler I will return to some sprinting but keep the stair climbing intervals. I feel and look 20 years younger and will probably be sending in my story eventually.

    Janet wrote on October 10th, 2012
    • I look forward to reading it! Sounds like it’ll be full of some useful data.

      Joy Beer wrote on October 10th, 2012
  14. I think this is a good study, but it ready is not relevant to most people. Most people find it difficult to get in that much exercise. But, for those people that do sometimes go overboard, these types of studies are great ways to show people to slow down, do a reasonable amount of exercise. I love being active, but I am in agreement with this article. And it follows the great general rule that everything should be in moderation.

    Nicholas Casteel wrote on October 10th, 2012
  15. Wholly Crap, according to ExRx between MMA training and S&C I’m expending 6290 calories a week. No wonder my energy is low at times. Its time to make some changes.

    Luis wrote on October 10th, 2012
  16. Wow this goes with what I have been concerned about my 55 year old husband who is a machanic. He burns so much at work and comes home and crashes from working so hard. I feed him 3000 to 4000 calories a day and he is still dropping weight. he is 145 lbs. 5’9″ wearing 28″ pants

    Shirley wrote on October 10th, 2012
  17. We need a better metric for “healthy” – since when is mortality the gold standard? Longer life thru chemistry (statins!) and limping along isn’t “healthy.” We need to push for a better health indicator.

    Anne wrote on October 10th, 2012
    • Who said anything about statins? Longer life is, in fact, an indicator of health. The healthier you are, the longer you’ll live.

      Personally, the reason I’m following the Primal lifestyle is so that I can live to be 90 or 100 or longer and be physically and mentally functional at that age. Over exercise is not conducive to that goal.

      LM wrote on October 12th, 2012
  18. Couldn’t agree more–I spent years running 6-8 miles a day, about 42+ miles a week, barely eating 1500 calories a day, weight training 2-3 days a week — all I did was burn out my metabolism and adrenal glands which has taken years to repair, but I am on the mend.

    Margaret wrote on October 10th, 2012
  19. Even 4000 a day for a smaller female is probably excessive. I am 5’4″, 130-135 and maintain right around 20% body fat. I’m very fit. I Crossfit 5 days a week, run about once ( short distance- sometimes sprints to 3 miles tops) and practice hot yoga 2-3 days a week which I do count as exercise since its a vinyasa flow.

    At Crossfit I burn about 350- 400 calories during exercise and an additional 50 – 100 in EPOC, so lets call it 450. Including 5 crossfit workouts, 1 run and 2 yoga sessions I’m barely meeting 2000 calories a week.

    When I have trained for bikini competitions I was closest to 2500 and I couldn’t sustain that. My body ached and my joints suffered. I was cranky, tired and overtrained.

    In conclusion, I think 4000 may be a bit high for women.

    Anon wrote on October 10th, 2012
  20. I have been seeing these studies pop up all over the blogosphere. I still have a hard time accepting that less is more especially since I work out for like an hour and a half a day. I have cut down my cardio a little and am doing more HIIT.

    Fitness Wayne | Exercise and Paleo Diet Blog wrote on October 10th, 2012
  21. Excellent article, as usual, Mark. I dream of running an ultra-marathon barefoot, so perhaps I will have to exceed these guidelines. I guess we all have our individual drivers and, at least for me, it would be too stressful to put that dream aside. Many runners I’ve spoken to have the same attitude. Stop them running and the stress levels go through the roof. No-one ever made a difference doing things “in moderation”. I dislike that phrase…
    Keep up the excellent posts. My cholesterol level is down, my body is practically fat-adapted, thanks to you and a few other luminaries.

    Barry Eagar wrote on October 10th, 2012
  22. The more fit you become the “less” calories you actually burn for any given activity.

    So this is an interesting metric to track.

    If you take an unfit person to a comfortable 4000 cals per week over time they should be getting more and more work out of their 4000 cals.

    alex wrote on October 10th, 2012
  23. I was really hoping this article applied to me. I’ve always wanted to hear someone say I was exercising too much. But, I caculated my output, I’m not even close to 4000 with 7 walks and 3 mini cross-fitish workouts a week. I’m thinking this is a rule for fitness fanatics to heed like my ironman husband. Dang!

    Miki wrote on October 10th, 2012
  24. I agree with Mark, I did long distance cycling, clocking up 250 miles a week and was exhausted and in pain (before my paleo days) and although I never counted calories, I counted the agony.
    I still have an excellent cardio/respiritory capacity, regularly doing a brisk walk for 30 minutes, cutting and breaking wood for a couple of hours or going shopping on my bike, only sweating a bit and making sure I get to breath hard.
    I’m so much better and have time for other things and don’t drop with exhaustion.
    At 50 (on paleo) I have the metabolism and blood counts of a 16 year old.
    Thank you Mark Sisson for your web and book guidance which saved my life – I started on the diet 20th February 2010 which I count as my second birthday.

    Kathy Stephen wrote on October 10th, 2012
  25. I agree with this article. Do less.
    I believe in ACTIVE LIVING. That’s what life is all about for me. Find time in the day to play.
    That’s what our body is designed to do. Unfortunately, exercise has morphed into an unnatural, competitive form whereby endurance and ‘goals’ have become the end point as opposed to the supporting and maintaining of the bio-mechanical functioning of the body. Why do you exercise?

    When I stop and think about it, doesn’t it seem counter-productive to exercise at length if the body’s alignment is not exact? Isn’t that the point of exercise? To strengthen the skeletal system? And yes, the cardiovascular system, mental, emotional etc. Creating balance?
    It all matters, but when we enter into extreme duration (and of course, extreme duration will vary for everybody’s body) that’s when it should be obvious that injury and negative returns will come into play.

    I observe people ‘working out’ all the time and often in the extreme with very poor body alignment. Pushing harder and for longer may for some people cause beautiful toning of muscles to pop out but it doesn’t mean that those toned muscles are functioning properly to support the structure.

    Do less at one time. But be consistent with less. Take Active Micro-Breaks throughout the day. But most importantly: Practice precision with every movement.

    Anon wrote on October 10th, 2012
  26. I would recommend the P.A.C.E. cardio philosophy promoted by Dr. Al Sears. Very eye opening!!

    Jeff Wittenfeld wrote on October 10th, 2012
  27. Mark,

    I totally agree. Moderate activity also matches up well with a primal diet. You won’t burn a ton of calories from walking or light jogging so you can do plenty of this. Not too much strength training, but some is good. Better to include a variety of activities rather than just one kind.


    Alykhan wrote on October 10th, 2012
  28. Ha! I dedicate tonights 7 miler to you, Mark. :)

    Brodie wrote on October 10th, 2012
  29. I would love to see a Primal version of The Biggest Loser!

    monran wrote on October 10th, 2012
    • That would be awesome! I groan when I see them head to subway for a 12″ veggie sub on wheat. That’s a blood sugar crash just waiting to happen. But, yeah, it would be great to see them do a primal exercise regimen too.

      Hilary wrote on October 10th, 2012
  30. Great article and I couldn’t agree with you more in terms of over exertion. Running is especially bad in my opinion.

    I tend to do 30-45 minutes of weight lifting using free weights and body weight one time per week. The day after is my “rest day”.

    The other five days I swim, but I usually only do so for 30-40 minutes as well. This is usually done in the form of sprinting sets that are less than 1500 yards or so. I also do some very light MMA training (mostly technique). In the good range of calorie expenditure? I’m 21 M and 160-165 lbs. (6ft)

    Brian Storm wrote on October 10th, 2012
  31. I walked the length of the US. I walked a marathon every day. I never felt so alive. I don’t think it is good to limit your activity to some arbitrary 4000 calorie limit. I work a sedentary job. I bicycle commute. The commute makes me feel great. I sometimes run at lunch. The running makes me feel alive. I sometimes do PBF-type exercises at lunch. They make me hurt. I was doing that twice a week plus sprinting once a week or less for about 9 months and it didn’t do a whole lot but make me sore more than half the week. So that’s where I cut back, not on the aerobic stuff that is relaxing and makes me feel alive. I’ll sprint next time I’m late for work on my bicycle commute, but that’s as far as that’s going to go. I’ll lift weights as long as it’s 25lbs of food, gear and water on my back up a mountain. I’ll do PBF-type exercises once a week just so I don’t forget how to stand up straight. But I don’t want to be in pain half my life anymore. No thanks.

    Diane wrote on October 10th, 2012
  32. I’d be interested to learn more about the “cutting edge recovery techniques” mentioned at the end.

    Char wrote on October 10th, 2012
  33. The amount of exercise you laid out seems rather small. I am a petite woman with two part-time jobs, and I commute to work by bike. Just the commutes bring my mileage to 45 miles, and I often walk to the store, and at work walk up three or five flights of stairs carrying things, etc. For fun, I take yoga and dance at least once a week. You surprised me.

    Sarah Abts wrote on October 10th, 2012
  34. Like you said, IronMan training will need more: 600kcal/hr x20hrs/wk = 12,000kcal/wk. And that would be a moderate regimen…

    JR wrote on October 10th, 2012
  35. I’d like to see where CNS and/or Adrenal fatigue fit in here?

    diablo135 wrote on October 10th, 2012

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