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

overtrainedEveryone 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. Runner here!

    Most weeks fall in the 35-ish mile range, so I guess I’m in the clear, but marathon training ups it into the 40s, sometimes 50s for a few weeks.

    I wonder too: what are the effects of single runs that burn 2000-3000 calories in just one session? I’m coming off a Sunday marathon right now and, while not sore, I am just toast. Energy = gone.

    I have to say though: running is hedonism for us runners, and we are okay with a little wear-n-tear if it means doing what we love!

    Catt wrote on October 11th, 2012
    • Replenish your glycogen stores and you probably won’t feel so dead.

      Meagan wrote on October 13th, 2012
  2. …and, also: “running” 11-minute miles? Uh, this is race-walking for me. My long legs can’t go slower than 9:30, and I’d need a watch and major discipline to keep my cadence at that.

    I think base level of fitness HAS to be considered here. What is a stressful physical event for one person is a whole lot of nothing for another. Example: those elites who jog the morning (or afternoon!) after winning world class marathons.

    Catt wrote on October 11th, 2012
    • I think that 11-minutes/mile is an error. As far as I can tell, in the study the “best” pace was 7 mph (or 8.5 minutes/mile).

      Mr. Skeptic wrote on October 11th, 2012
  3. This article was more confusing for me than enlightening. I know “overtraining” and “chronic cardio” are unhealthy, but how do I judge? What’s a good method for tracking/calculating calorie expenditure? Those calculators you linked to seem to be worthless, at least for a cyclist. FitDay lists 14-16mph as a fast, vigorous effort, which for me would be a leisurely pace. However, for my out of shape, but similar height/weight, friend that would be a vigorous effort. I wouldn’t worry too much about the 4,000 cal guideline, except that when the weather is good, I do put in quite a few miles of cycling at a moderate to fast pace most weeks because I enjoy every moment of it, not because I feel compelled to reach some abritrary goal or log as many miles as possible. I definitely exceed 80 miles per week fairly often, but it doesn’t feel like a chronis stress on my body. Quite the opposite, and I’m just an enthusiast, NOT someone who races.

    DenverD wrote on October 11th, 2012
    • Or, I should say that the article is clearly written, but the guideline leads me to questions that I don’t know how to answer.

      DenverD wrote on October 11th, 2012
    • Also, maybe part of my confusing comes from not using any gadgets to track my “workouts” like a lot of cyclists and runners do. This is because my only goal is enjoyment.

      DenverD wrote on October 11th, 2012
  4. Am I over training?? I always been into health and fitness When I was younger, I used to run 40+ miles a week, and train for marathons and half marathons. Now I quick running and started cross fit training. I completed P90X doubles,and changed my diet to Paleo. I felt and look good. Now I found out I have burnted out my adrenal, and my hormones are out of balance. I can’t sleep at night, and I am tired during the day. I still do P90X because it makes me feel good, but I do try to take it easy. Am I still doing too much? How can I heal my Adrenal?

    Angela wrote on October 11th, 2012
  5. I’ve found the best way to avoid overtraining is to use a heart rate monitor while doing cardio exercise and keep my heart rate to 180-age. That is so slow that it is well below any “chronic cardio” level and thus qualifies as slow movement. I believe you could do 10s of thousands of calories of slow movement and not overdo it.

    Diane wrote on October 11th, 2012
  6. Two points
    1) Mark always claim that observational studies are worthless. But I guess they are not worthless when they support his views.

    2) If we do consider the studies, the fact is that they actually do not support the 4000 calories limit, and the studies Mark cited were cherry-picked. A meta-analysis of studies on non-vigorous activity shown that the higher the level of physical activity, the bigger the benefit. The highest level in this study is 150 METh/week. In order to convert to Meth/week calories, multiply by weight in kilogram, so 150 means over 10,000 calories a week (if your weight is >= 147 pounds).

    Mr. Skeptic wrote on October 11th, 2012
  7. I was increasing my running mileage too quickly. I think the 10% rule is supposed to be once a month but i was doing it weekly and I did 41 miles in a week, one too many. No wonder why I ended up with a high ankle sprain on the sidelines for weeks. Im gonna slow up and max out at 40 miles per week and only increase 10% per month once I get started running again.

    dennis wrote on October 12th, 2012
  8. These studies are worthless, but I anecdotally agree more is not better, from lifetime of exercise and experiments.

    However, putting a calorie count on it is plain ridiculous. Understand, that people respond to exercise on a bell curve, so, some people’s ‘too much’ would be much lower, and some people much higher.

    Far better, to judge by injury, immune suppression, how you feel etc ….though, many chronic exercisers get a high…and only when they stop, will they become aware of the damage they’ve done ( been there, done that).

    also, the idea you can put a ‘minutes per mile’ is beyond silly! lol …you have to measure INTENSITY for a start – for some people 40minutes at 11minute mile is an all out effort i.e. a big stress, for others, a gentle jog close to a walk!

    Regardless, the idea that faster running i.e higher intensity, causes early death is classic ‘non science’, the study when examined is laughable in its method. If that were the case, sprinting would be the worst! and weight training is even more ‘intense’

    Without a doubt, too much anything is bad – sprinting, weights, aerobics ..the challenge is to define ‘too much’ …calories won’t work, minutes per mile is crazy…you’ll have to judge by Kinesthetic awareness, or perhaps sign of overtraining – raise morning heart rate, restlessness etc

    If in doubt, do LESS not more..get variety not obsession..and don’t get caught up in ‘more is better’ i.e. marketing hype of ‘ironmen’/triathalon..etc

    mark wrote on October 13th, 2012
  9. This is a very important topic, the problem of over or under exercising, and trying to get it right. My energy level varies so; I’m sure how much I exercise plays some role, and also, possibly under-eating – for me. It doesn’t take a lot of calories for me to maintain a reasonable weight that many would consider fat. I’m maintaining an 80 pound weight loss – for 26 years. So – I don’t know what the right amount of exercise is for me! Your guideline doesn’t really help me. But, I sense it’s better to not push so hard, to take a day or two off, to not necessarily do the walk fast. It’s not simple.

    Debbie wrote on October 13th, 2012
  10. I did some calculating of what mty probable average weekly expenditure was at my prime fitness at 45. WOW was i surprised. K4,000 is not easy to do. that was a lot so i even further agree. I think in the end, over fourty its what you eat and for maximal health and longivity it is to for you youngsters. Cant figure out how to make my commit show my pic so you know i knw wht im talking about

    Eric James wrote on October 13th, 2012
  11. I recently spent a holiday month in NYC. I lost 4.5kg ( 10lbs) by simply walking as a tourist. In fact it is likely that I consumed more calories during that time than I would have done at home.

    Steve wrote on October 14th, 2012
  12. hey there – sent over from Everyday living anyway, I think I do a decent amount of exercise and usually do something 5-6 days a week – I haven’t burnt over 4,000 calories in a week, though Ive come close. I agree with most points you made. Make sense. Cool blog

    Ali Mc wrote on October 14th, 2012
  13. But what about when you have a labor intensive job? Your body doesn’t know the difference does it? I trim horses, there are some days I work very hard, especially when I end up trimming difficult horses that decide to fight me (and I’m female).

    Could it just be that if you feel like exercising it’s ok, but if you feel miserable your body is telling you it needs a rest and this could be a good guideline rather than trying to figure how many calories I may have burned?

    Ashley wrote on October 15th, 2012
    • Also, I enjoy running. And I run faster than 11 minute miles.. I get out there with my dogs and it’s fun (ok towards the end it does get less fun!)!

      I wonder if fitness level would move the numbers up or down for an individual?

      Ashley wrote on October 15th, 2012
  14. I wonder if any one has information on the calorific burn of alternative exercises other then running/cycling etc? Information specifically on BJJ (not MMA, please don’t confuse these)would be great as we often train for 2 or more hours yet never really exceeding 120 bpm. As most will know, it’s pretty physical stuff – yet not always so high a cardio activity as rugby or [ice]hockey and usually less physical impact than the hits in Judo (or say, Wrestling). I’m curious. Any info..?

    Tony B wrote on October 22nd, 2012
  15. Now that I am approaching 50, my exercise consists of power yoga 4 times a week, along 1.5 hours of cardio.

    My body cannot take the pressure of lifting weights anymore (I still do it but much lighter weights and more reps) and in the summer I bike ride about 40 miles a week… during the cold season, I use an elliptical machine.

    I am in much better shape (lean and muscular) than a lot of “20-30 somethings” that are eating chips, candy, smoking, and drinking on a daily basis so I know that diet has a LOT to do with how I feel and how I look…

    Yoga is the best though! Great stress reliever, using body weight to get strong and muscular, and love the sweat to detox the junk out of my system… oh… Paleo eater here too.

    Pepe wrote on October 22nd, 2012
  16. Thanks for this! Sharing on my FB page right now.

    Adrienne wrote on October 23rd, 2012
  17. Great article. My husband just cycled 622 km in one day – he went against all your advice – although I’m a fitness fanatic myself there is such a thing as an unhealthy amount of exercise. Thank you for putting it so well.

    Robyn Connacher wrote on November 9th, 2012
  18. I find this really interesting. I have recently been attempting to lose weight and have lost around 20 pounds. I am now 160 pounds and would like to get below 140. I was losing pretty quickly-up to 3.5lbs a week but now my weight loss has really stalled. I think I am burning up to 8000 cals a week but don’t use a heart rate monitor. I also wasn’t really aware you should eat back at least some of your exercise calories so have been combining it with a low cal diet of around 1200-1400/day. I am now a little unsure whether I am doing too much or perhaps am really over estimating exercise calories. I should be losing just based on diet (I measure everything and am confident that I don’t eat more than 1400) but I’m not which makes me think I maybe am doing too much. Do people have any thoughts? I’m really a bit confused and frustrated at the moment.

    Ellie wrote on September 11th, 2013
  19. Don’t really think that’s accurate for me, but everyone is different. I burn 4000 cals a day in exercise about 2-3 times a week. With a minimum of at least 1200-1500 a day all from cycling, add in daily burn that goes from 6000 on hard days and 3200 ish on recovery days. But I guess cyclists are exception to the burn rules. Yes I enjoy it. Yes I’m sometimes on a bike seat for 4:30 hours straight. Heart and determination.

    Tom wrote on September 17th, 2013

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