How Long Does It Take To Burn Calories From A Big Mac? (Science Explained)
Is it possible to out-exercise a bad diet? In this article, learn just how long it could take you to burn calories off your favorite cheat meal.
Turning down that weekend burger and fries isn’t easy. We tell ourselves we'll make up for it in the gym, but how difficult is it to actually reverse the damage (i.e., burn calories off from the meal)?
To find out, today, my friends and I are eating our favorite meals from McDonald’s ...
But what they don't know is we'll then be attempting to burn calories off the meals (everything!) and see who can do it the fastest. We'll be using the world’s most scientifically accurate calorie tracker to keep track of our progress as we burn calories.
After breaking the (devastating) news to Nicole and Cam, here's how many calories each of us needed to burn:
- Me: 1,840 calories
- Nicole: 980 calories
- Cam: 1,063 calories
"I am very shocked that my 2 small burgers and my root beer, which is honestly a regular meal for me, is 900 calories. I don't think I'm going to beat Jeremy, but maybe I'll have a shot at beating Cam. We'll see. I'm going to do a leg day. Some squatting, that is my usual go-to, so I'm confident I can burn calories and get my heart racing during that one."
"1,063 calories for some nuggets. Dude, I felt like I was eating a kids' meal! Racing against other people? Uh, everyone here seems really fit, so ... I'm going to try my best. My approach to burn calories? I'm going to play some basketball, going to play some shots. Do some training. Maybe play some one-on-one. I really like playing basketball, so I'm hoping that this takes some of the pain out of just mindlessly doing cardio, and it can actually be fun."
So while Nicole and Cam are almost certain I’m gonna win, I have over 800 more calories to burn than they do, so I need a secret weapon. A day before the challenge, I spoke with a well-known fitness scientist, Dr. Eric Helms.
To help me burn calories, he introduced me to the Compendium of Physical Activities.
So I combed through the list and chose the most energy-demanding upper and lower body exercises to guarantee my success. And ... I decided to keep my learnings from Eric and my findings to myself.
It's especially unfortunate for Nicole since here's what Eric had to say about using resistance training to burn calories:
"You really don't see great energy expenditure from resistance training until you get really, really strong. You're spending 80% of the time resting between sets so you can maintain the intensity. You wanna burn the most calories possible, cardio wins hands down."
Meet The World's Most Scientifically Accurate Calorie Tracker
I’m sure you’ve all used an Apple watch or Fitbit or even looked at the number on cardio machines to track your progress as you burn calories during your workout.
These have all been shown to inaccurately report calories burned by over 20%.
The (Bane-like) mask we’re using, developed by a company called PNOE, is the most scientifically accurate way to measure calories burned.
By capturing every breath we take, it measures the amount of oxygen used and carbon dioxide released and uses that to determine the exact number of calories we’re burning.
The Race Is On To Burn Calories
The first exercise of my master plan to burn calories is vigorous uphill biking.
The mask made everything so much harder. After the first 20 minutes, I was gassed. And Eric had warned me of this:
"It really does just come down to finding a way to not red line it to the point where your intensity goes down and you can maintain it."
But I’m the science guy, I’m the fittest, and I’m competitive.
I have to win. Losing would be an embarrassment. So I kept pushing through until my legs were burning to the point where I honestly just couldn’t take anymore. And after an hour of giving everything I had, it was time to check-in.
I was hoping for at least 600 calories. So I was stoked to learn that I'd actually burned 1,002 calories!
Now, let's check in on Cam's (basketball) and Nicole's (leg day) calorie burn at the 60-minute mark:
- Cam: 595 calories
- Nicole: 313 calories
Now although Nicole made a smart move by jumping around instead of resting between her sets, just as Eric predicted, her weights workout just didn’t burn very many calories. Just barely covering one apple pie.
But this doesn’t mean lifting weights is pointless if you want to burn calories. Eric puts it best:
"It'd be a huge mistake to not do resistance training. Because when you create an energy deficit, you're gonna lose weight. But you really want to be losing as much of that weight as fat mass as possible. The resistance training tells your body, I need to hold onto my muscle mass. The cardio helps your energy expenditure to create the deficit to make sure that deficit comes from fat mass. A combination of energy deficit cardio and resistance training is probably the best way to go."
After that first check-in, everyone got on with their next exercise.
I still had almost 1,000 calories left to burn, and my legs were exhausted. So it was time to switch to one of the most energy-demanding upper body exercises from the Compendium of Physical Activities to burn calories.
I thought it would actually take me all the way to the win. But just 10 minutes in, my hands were blistering. My cardio was fine, but my hands just couldn't bear the pain. Clearly, I'm not used to getting my hands dirty.
But I couldn’t let this stop me from the win. I pushed harder and faster for the next 30 minutes until I finally had to call it quits.
I ended up burning 497 calories, which meant I had 340 calories left to burn.
My hands were raw, my legs were tired, and I wasn’t sure how much more my body could handle. Eating that apple pie may end up costing me the win.
But defeat was not an option, and I had one more trick up my sleeve to burn calories and, more importantly, help me secure the win.
Before that, though, let's check in on my competitors.
"After that first check-in, I thought I needed to bring Tahnee in. I've known her for a really long time, we're really good friends. So it was almost like a boot camp. There was no stopping. She wasn't going to let me get a break. It was go, go, go."
Unfortunately, by doing the high-intensity circuit training, Nicole once again did exactly what Eric warned me not to do when trying to burn calories:
"If you were to watch Biggest Loser or if you were to see what a lot of different people are doing on social media, you would probably assume the most energetic method of burning a lot of calories is something kind of like what a CrossFit games competitor would do where you're bouncing between ball slams, ropes, sprints back and forth obviously that will burn a lot of calories. But I think the average person doesn't necessarily have the cardiovascular conditioning to make that really, really effective. You're most of the time going to see higher energy expenditure just from spending that time, you know, doing moderate-intensity training."
After taking the life out of her without much calorie burn to show for it, it’s safe to say Nicole wasn’t too happy with her progress so far.
"I needed to get out of the sun, so I found a small patch of shade over on the pathway, and I figured I could do a little bit of jump rope now to burn calories. I was just so tired at that point, and everything was starting to hurt."
While Cam has gotten off to a good start, he does have a slight advantage…
Let's have Eric explain why:
"The heavier you are, the more calories you're gonna burn moving."
But he also said there's a catch:
"For a given unit at a time, if you're both training pretty hard and trying to redline it or doing the hardest you can, the person in better shape will burn more calories."
So while he may be off to a good start, Cam’s cardio wasn’t quite as good as mine or Nicole’s. Hopefully, he starts slowing down, which will give Nicole and me a chance to pull ahead.
The Final Push
At this point, every single muscle of my body was exhausted. But I had 340 calories left to burn, and losing was not an option.
I chose to stick with the basics. The stairmaster.
Now typically, it takes me at least 35 minutes to burn off 340 calories on this machine.
But I didn’t have the time or the energy for that.
Luckily, I recalled Eric’s comment about body weight.
The heavier you are, the more calories you burn. So I decided to add 25 lbs to a backpack to speed things up. It was time for the final push.
But the extra weight made it a lot harder than I expected.
With every single step, my legs wanted to give up. Out of pure exhaustion, I went against Eric’s advice and leaned my body onto the handles:
"So you commonly see people on the StairMaster, they're just like fully on top of it, and they're basically only moving maybe 60% of their body mass. And, of course, that's gonna drop calories."
But at this point, every minute counted.
I reminded myself of the pain of potential defeat. I was the fittest, I had all the science, and losing was not an option. So I lifted myself up and gave it my all for the final push.
In the meantime ...
"After feeling so exhausted from the circuit, I thought, let's change it up. Go for a walk, which will still help me burn calories. Then I came back and found out I had another 180 calories to burn, so I jumped on the treadmill and tried to do some sprints there."
"After the jump rope, I realized I was having a much better time playing basketball. So I opted to go back out into the heat and did some shooting and some dribbling drills to burn calories, and that is when my brain really started kicking in, telling me, please stop exercising, please!"
You Don't Need To Burn Calories Off From Every "Cheat Meal"
Now, before you get the wrong idea from this article — and think that you can never eat fast food again or that you need to burn calories off every time you eat something bad, know this.
The average male already burns around 2,000 calories doing absolutely nothing all day (males ~2,000 calories and females ~1,600 calories).
But nowadays, it’s easier than ever to gain weight by eating more calories than your body needs, and while it is possible, it’s very difficult to reverse it through exercise alone.
It’s much easier to turn down that Apple Pie than it is to burn off 300 calories.
Don’t get me wrong.
Exercise is amazing for you, and everyone needs it, but if you want to lose weight and get in shape, you’d be a fool not to prioritize your diet.
If you want a proven, step-by-step plan that’ll tell you exactly what to eat and how to work out to transform your body based on science, then take our quiz to find the best plan for you:
Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover the best program for you:
How Long Did It Take Us To Burn Calories From Our Meals?
Or, in other words, who won?
Finishing in third place, with a time of 134 minutes, is Nicole.
Keep in mind Nicole did have a disadvantage being the lightest of us 3. And, considering her poor choice of exercises, I’d say her time to burn calories off her meal was very impressive.
And in second place, beating Nicole by just 8 minutes, is Jeremy. Which means Cam is the winner.
As disappointed as I was about my loss, Cam’s victory taught me an important lesson.
This whole time I was so obsessed with science and creating the best plan, but while a fancy workout may look good on paper, it’s not going to do much if you absolutely dread doing it.
Exercise is crucial for both your physical and mental health, and it doesn’t have to feel like torture or that it's just a means to an end to burn calories.
Whether it’s basketball, biking, playing with your dog, or who knows, maybe even chopping wood, find activities you actually have fun doing as that’s what you’ll be most likely to stick to.
Breakdown Of Results
Here’s the breakdown of the results for those interested.
Jeremy: 1,840 calories to burn
- Biking (60 minutes): 1,003 calories
- Chopping Wood (40 minutes): 497 calories
- Weighted Stairmaster (26 minutes): 340 calories
- Total time: 126 minutes
Nicole: 980 calories to burn
- Leg Workout (60 minutes): 313 calories
- High-Intensity Circuit (18 minutes): 200 calories
- Jogging Outside With Dog (33 minutes): 287 calories
- Jogging/Cycling (23 minutes): 180 calories
- Total time: 134 minutes
Cam: 1,063 calories to burn
- Basketball 1-on-1 (60 minutes): 595 calories
- Jump rope (20 minutes): 180 calories
- Basketball drills (27 minutes): 288 calories
- Total time: 107 minutes
Special thanks to Eric for his help! You can check out his profile and work on his Instagram @helms3dmj.
Alright, that's all for now, thanks for sticking till the end, and I'll see ya next time!