Most writers I know keep track of their progress via word count. Each writing session adds a few hundred or few thousand words to a spreadsheet, with a target word count as the end goal or a short story or novel. Without actual words going into the project, everything would come to a standstill, right? Once a draft is complete, then comes the revision process where you often try to “trim down” or hone the word count down to its essentials. If you really want to see fitness progress, you should consider being just as mindful of your calorie input/output.
Recognize that calories are not your enemy in fitness and health. In fact, without calories, your physical processes would come to a standstill (this is known as…er…starving yourself to death). On the flipside, too many calories will cause issues in the form of obesity and all the various associated health complications (apnea, joint issues, heart issues, etc.). It’s a matter of understanding how many calories you actually need to optimally function and how to adjust your calorie intake to make consistent progress toward your health goals—usually in the form of either fat loss and/or muscle gain.
Whatever your specific goal, calculating your energy/calorie intake is the most critical thing you can do to help yourself achieve it. Ignore this or get it drastically wrong and you’ll experience frustration and failure on the fitness front. Everything else is connected to this.
How do we go about figuring out optimal calorie intake?
First, what’s your primary goal? It’s usually either weight loss or muscle gain. People who are just getting into exercise and training may be able to see advances in both areas for a time, but these are normally opposing goals, one facilitated by a calorie deficit and the other by a calorie surplus.
Your eating protocols are going to determine which state you’re in at any given time. In fact, it’s far easier to stay on track with your fitness goals by managing your diet than by ignoring what you eat and just trying to exercise more. You can only add so many workouts to your schedule before you start negatively affecting your stress levels, causing greater fatigue, and impairing your ability to recover from exercise. I’m sure you’ve heard people talking about how they “work out so they can eat whatever they want.” The issue with this is that the instant they stop exercising at a high rate, their poor eating habits will catch up with them. Exercise and training should be contributing to your fitness rather than being used as a stop-gap to allow for an unhealthy diet.
With that said, let’s get to how you can pin down your caloric needs. There are three steps here:
1. Determine Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
In essence, BMR is the amount of energy you need to maintain bodily functions without gaining or losing weight. This is absolute neutral. If you did nothing but lie in bed all day and stare at the ceiling, how many calories would you need to just break even? Some people suggest taking your body weight and multiplying it by 10. This gives an okay ballpark, but it’s going to be a gross oversimplification. The following are variations on the Harris-Benedict BMR Formula and should give you a better sense:
- Men: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)
- Women: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)
- Men: BMR = 88.362 + (6.251 x weight in lbs) + (12.189 x height in inches) – (5.677 x age in years)
- Women: BMR = 447.593 + (4.203 x weight in lbs) + (7.869 x height in inches) – (4.330 x age in years)
Once you’ve got that number, move to Step 2.
2. Adjust for Activity
This is where you estimate your exercise levels and add it on top of your BMR.
- Little to no exercise: Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.2
- Light exercise (1–3 days per week): Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.375
- Moderate exercise (4–5 days per week): Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.55
- Heavy exercise (6–7 days per week): Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.725
- Very heavy exercise (twice per day, extra heavy workouts): Daily kilocalories needed = BMR x 1.9
Now you’ve at least got a basic idea of how many calories you need on average to maintain where you are right now. Recognize this is not a hard-and-fast number and will likely need to be adjusted as you go along.
3. Determine Your Deficit or Surplus
This goes back to what your actual fitness goal is. Weight loss? Muscle gain? If it’s losing weight, you’ll need to average a deficit. Muscle gain needs an average surplus.
A. Weight Loss – A simple way of approaching this is the basic idea that a pound of fat equates to 3500 calories. This is close enough that it works in most instances. Another basic rule is that most people safely lose fat at a rate of 1 lb per week (heavier people can lose a little more, while leaner people might lose less). Much more than that, and it’s likely you’re just losing water weight and/or muscle you want to keep. So if you’re aiming for 1 lb of fat loss per week, that equates to an average deficit of 500 calories each day. So subtract 500 calories from the calorie maintenance number you calculated from above and you’ve got a decent starting point for figuring out how much you should be eating on a daily basis to encourage weight loss.
B. Muscle Gain – People tend to gain actual muscle much slower than they lose fat. The rate at which you can potentially gain muscle is impacted by your current fitness levels as well as your training experience. A beginning weightlifter, for instance, will likely see faster, more immediate muscle and strength gains than someone who has been training for 5+ years. If you’re a beginner, you could aim for 2-3 lbs of muscle gain per month, which averages out to a surplus of 200-300 calories per day. Intermediate trainees can expect closer to 1-2 lb muscle gains a month, at 100-200 daily calorie surplus. Advanced training can get as low as .5 lb monthly muscle gains, and the surplus is pretty minimal at that point.
Remember, all of these numbers and percentages are estimates and generalities. They will vary from person to person dependant on your current physical state, your true activity levels, and so on. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on your progress over the first 4-6 weeks of any eating/exercise protocol. Are you in a supposed surplus and lifting consistently but aren’t experiencing any increases in strength? Are you in a supposed deficit but haven’t seen any weight loss? Try bumping the calories up or down and see if that makes a difference. Even just basic tracking efforts and experimentation can help you make steady progress, but the key is to be aware of where you’re at with food intake, physical activity, and training experience.