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Sports help sculpt the physique, sharpen the mind and provide a sense of fulfilment. For many people, they’re also a good way to lose some weight. The equation seems simple: when we play sports, we expend energy, which burns calories, which leads to weight loss.

It’s not necessarily that simple, however: in a 2003 article published by the US Nutrition Society author Dr Speakman Jr. argues “The direct effects of physical activity interventions on energy expenditure are relatively small when placed in the context of total daily energy demands.” We discussed this in a previous blog (LINK) on the relative importance of diet and exercise when trying to lose weight.

That’s not to say that exercise doesn’t do anything. Here we will explain how the indirect effects of exercise can play a significant part in weight loss in the long term and then cover the most effective sports for burning calories.

Indirect effects of exercise

It needs to be understood that the weight loss potential of exercise is heavily tied to how we naturally expend energy. One of the most important factors to consider for weight loss is the basal metabolic rate (BMR). Most of the calories your body burns throughout the day (70-90%) are a result of regular metabolic processes rather than physical activity. Your heart has to pump blood around the body, your organs need to function properly and you need to build new cells.

On this basis, one might conclude, sports might not be so important for losing weight. However, exercise has a large, indirect influence on the BMR of an individual and the flow on effects for calorie burning are significant. Before we get into specific sports and their calorie burning potential, let’s take a look at the relationship between BMR and exercise.

As a general rule: the more you weigh, the more calories you burn in a day. However, the amount of your weight that is fat will also determine how much you burn per day. The more lean weight that you have, the more calories that your body will need to burn in a day to keep the tissue functioning. Put simply, muscle takes more energy than fat to maintain. Therefore, the fitter you are, the easier it is to stay fit. This is the real function of exercise in maintaining a healthy weight.

The most effective sports

Now, which sports are going to get you fit the fastest? In order work out which aerobic activity increases your overall calorie expenditure we use a formula called the “metabolic equivalent” or MET. MET works out how many calories a person burns on average in relation to their BMR. A MET of 1 is the equivalent to 1 calorie per Kg per hour: the metabolic rate of somebody sitting down relaxing. The average New Zealand man weighs 77KG and will burn 77 calories per hour with a MET of 1, the average NZ woman weighing in at 67Kg will burn 67 calories per hour with the same score.

When calculating a sport’s MET, it’s important to understand that the intensity of the exercise performed has a higher impact on calorie expenditure than the specific exercise. For example, cycling at 10KMPH hour has a MET of 4.8, meaning the same man will burn 370 calories per hour and his female counterpart 322. However, cycling at 30KMPH will have a score of 9.8, burning 755/657 calories per hour for the average guy and gal, respectively.

As for the most popular sports in NZ, swimming comes in on top with an average swimming speed of 4Kph giving an impressive score of 13.6. Rugby is close behind with an average of 12.6. Soccer comes in at 8. That said, as we mentioned, intensity is a key determinant: if you’re chasing every pass when you play soccer, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t burn more calories than a lazy rugby player – so take these results with a grain of salt as they will vary for each individual.

If you’re interested in sports that challenge the mind, get you into great shape and get you into New Zealand’s beautiful wilderness, climbing has an impressive average score of 9.5 METs. Rock climbing gyms can be found in most large towns and cities if you’d like to practice before getting up on real rock.

On the water, rowing is one of the best sports for burning calories: two people rowing at 20Kph will have a MET score of approximately 19.1 – burning 1471/1280 calories per hour with his workout. When compared with running, often thought as the ideal way to burn calories, it is more effective. Running at 15kph burns 1124/978 calories per hour for our average male and female, earning a MET score of 14.6.

Some exercises do have an edge when it comes to calorie expenditure but when choosing a sport to practice it is best to go with the one you are most interested in. Burning a lot of calories is possible with any sport performed at high intensity. Moreover, there are a plethora of additional health benefits particular to each activity. Sports that burn a lot calories tend to have very positive effects on heart health. Some sports, such as cycling and rowing, target specific parts of the body.

Let us know in the comments if you’ve found a particular sport to be an effective calorie burner.


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