Yes, Muscle Burns More Calories Than Fat
But it’s not a big number. A pound of muscle burns about 6 calories per day – and a pound of fat burns a calorie or two per day. That fat burn may not sound like much, but it adds up to a lot more than many people assume — it turns out fat isn’t just sitting there. This is why people with very large weight losses find they must eat less to maintain their weight loss.
And yet occasionally we see claims like “a pound of muscle burns about 6.5 calories an hour,” “a pound of muscle burns 50 calories a day,” or “muscle burns 50 times as many calories as fat.” A little math can show us that 6.5 or (or even 2) calories per hour is pretty much impossible.
The “resting metabolic rate” — the minimum number of calories burned in a 24-hour period — is around 1500-1600 for a 150-lb body. It’s a little higher for men, and the lower your bodyfat percentage the higher it is, but that’s a decent middle-of-the-road estimate. So that means your body is burning around 60ish calories an hour just sitting there.
Men average 42% of their weight as skeletal muscle — the kind we work on in the gym and need to work for bone density and other health benefits — and women about 36%. (These are just averages — people who strength train consistently build higher percentages.) Our average 150-lb human would have about 58 pounds of (skeletal) muscle.
58 lb times 6.5 cals an hour would mean an hourly calorie burn of 380 for just sitting there! And none of us really believes we need 9000 calories a day to stay alive. (Right?) Even at the 50-cals-a-day level, we’d be looking at 2900 calories a day before we moved a single one of those muscles, and that doesn’t account for the rest of the body’s functions.
What Can We Take Away From This?
Calorie burn is a good thing to know about so that you can plan your eating and exercise wisely. but it’s not the be-all and end-all of, well, of anything.
As Yoni Freedhoff, MD, founder of Ottawa’s non-surgical Bariatric Medical Institute, put it: “Exercise for health, eating for weight management.” It’s not just that, of course — exercise helps us manage our overall calories to some extent, and having a good foundation of nutritious food is essential before we fill out our calories with just-for-fun stuff. Either way, though, what we are looking for is a good balance: of activity and nutrition, of strong muscles and a healthy heart so we use them for a while, of health and enjoyment.
Gorgeous racing greyhound Kinda Ready, by Mark Wallis