What are so-called ‘maintenance calories‘ exactly?
Here’s a simple definition: the total amount of calories required on a daily basis to maintain your body weight with no gains or losses in fat and/or muscle tissue.
The human body requires energy every day to maintain bodily functions and scale weight. The food you eat daily is used in various ways to repair your muscles, help cells turnover to create new ones, store fat into your fat cells, shuttle glycogen (carbs) into your muscles, and provide energy to your body for regular movement and exercise.
Maintenance Calorie Intake (what does this mean?)
If you’re not gaining or losing weight at your current caloric intake, this is what we refer to as your maintenance caloric intake.
To ‘maintain’ simply means to constantly replace the energy you’ve expended with more energy from the food you eat. It’s a cyclical process and you’ve been doing it your entire life without ever thinking about the concept of maintenance calories before.
I’ve illustrated how this works in a chart below:
Understanding your expenditure over a 24-hour period
As you’ll see, if you burn 3,000 calories over a 24-hour period (daily activity included), and you consume 3,000 calories, then you’ll not gain or lose weight.*
You’ll maintain your body weight with no fat and/or muscle gain or loss.
*Note: your weight can (and most likely will) fluctuate over time within 1-5 pounds (or more depending on various factors like glycogen storage, water retention, bowel movements, urination, sodium intake, etc), so you’re hardly ever going to see the same exact weight on the scale every day.
What Determines Calorie Requirements?
It’s not just about exercise. It’s about everything your body does from the most basic function (keeping you alive) to high-performance strength training, to studying for an exam, to walking to your car.
It’s common to make the mistake of only thinking about how many calories you burn from exercise and nothing else.
In fact, exercise, for most people is a small portion of your daily energy expenditure. While you might burn 250-300 calories during your hour-long gym session, you’re burning much more than that through the day during your regular activities.
What you burn over an entire 24-hour period is made up of 3 variables
- BMR (basal metabolic rate)
- NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis)
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is what you burn at rest. It’s what you’d burn every day to keep your body functioning and alive. Think of it like this… if you were to stay in bed all day doing nothing, your body would still require a certain amount of energy to function.
We tend to equate our activities such as training, cardio, and general walking around as what burns calories. And while those activities do burn calories, our bodies are also burning calories just to stay alive. All of your organs require energy from food to function normally.
Your brain requires glucose for processing power. Your stomach requires calories to digest food, which it turns into useable energy for later. Your heart requires energy to keep beating. Your skin and bones require energy to repair themselves from everyday cell turnover (cell replication).
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. NEAT can differ wildly from person to person. You might have two people who are seemingly identical in their daily routine, exercise intensity, muscular build, and eating habits but have differing levels of energy requirements.
Outside of some slight metabolic differences, the amount of food they need to maintain their weight will often be affected by their NEAT. And some people are generally more fidgety than others.
Some tap their foot during work, while others hardly move at all. Some find it incredibly hard to sit still, and others can be perfectly fine vegging out on the couch all day. NEAT can have a drastic impact on your energy expenditure when it doesn’t outright negatively impact your daily routine.
For instance, the person who walks to work, or spends time getting up at regular intervals from their desk to stretch and move around are going to burn more calories from these activities than someone who drives to work and is chained to their desk all day.
This is why people with active jobs (being on their feet all day, those with delivery routes, doing manual labor) can seem like bottomless pits when it comes to their food intake.
Deliberate exercise is what you do above and beyond your normal daily activities. Things like weight training, cardio, intervals, and sports.
All three of these variables make up Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). Your TDEE is your BMR plus all the other activity (NEAT and exercise included). This includes moving around for daily tasks (getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, walking around your house, making food, going to work, training at the gym, playing frisbee in the park, and everything else you do).
All of that extra activity requires calories for energy. As a result, your total energy requirements go up. TDEE is also sometimes referred to as your maintenance calories, which makes sense given what I’ve laid out thus far.
Equations For Maintenance Calories
For maintenance calorie equations, it always starts with the BMR.
Some popular BMR equations are known as the following (which are the names of the creators):
- Harris-Benedict Equation
- Mifflin St Jeor Equation
- Katch-McArdle Formula
For sake of simplicity, we’re only going to use the Harris-Benedict Equation because let’s face it—these calculators all give you similar numbers, and it’s not worth worrying about which one is most accurate. In fact, all of these equations are merely educated guesses (more on that in a bit).
Here’s a quick snapshot of the math required for the Harris Benedict Equation:
Key for the formula above:
- P is total heat production at complete rest
- m is mass (kg)
- h is height (cm)
- a is age (years)
But for sake of example, let’s use a common BMR calculator to start with.
I entered the following data:
- Height: 5’8”
- Weight: 190lbs
- Age: 29
- Gender: male
Here are the results:
When we do some quick math, 1916 divided by 190 pounds is roughly equal to 10.
[1916 / 190 = 10.08]
So, a quick way to get BMR with simple math is to multiply your body weight by 10. And this leads me into the next section, which will be super useful.
Maintenance Calculators + Activity Levels
If you’ve ever used a BMR calculator while trying to figure out your maintenance intake, they usually have multipliers for you to use. And they tend to read something as follows…
In order to determine your maintenance calories, multiply your BMR by the number below:
- Sedentary (little to no exercise) | 1.2
- Light exercise (1-3 days of exercise per week) | 1.35
- Moderate exercise (4-5 days of exercise per week) | 1.5
- Intense exercise (6-7 days of exercise per week) | 1.6
- Hard exercise (marathon or twice daily training sessions) | 1.75
Depending on what resources you use, the language will vary somewhat, but how does this translate to real-world levels of activity? Are you sedentary if you sit all day long? Hint: you are.)
What if you do yoga a few times per week? Still sedentary or are you now in the light exercise category?
What if you weight train 3 days per week but have an office job? What now?
It can all get really confusing, so I’m going to lay it all out for you here in easy-to-understand terms.
First, here’s a quick chart for easy reference:
One thing I want you to keep in mind before I give you these multipliers is the following:
MAINTENANCE CALCULATIONS ARE ONLY A GOOD ESTIMATE.
And nothing more than that. It’s a starting point to help you get headed in the right direction.
So don’t get upset if the calculations (or the calculator below that I had made for you) are somewhat off based on what you know to be your caloric requirements from your own experience with tracking your nutrition and body weight over time.
Here’s how to establish your maintenance calories the manual way, without relying on a calculator.
Step 1: Determine the activity level from the figures below (taken from chart above)
- Sedentary: 15 minutes or less of daily exercise (anything goes) with a desk job | 12
- Lightly Active: 1-2 hours of weights and/or cardio exercise per week | 13.5
- Moderately Active: 3-5 hours of weights and/or cardio exercise per week | 15
- Very Active: 6-7 hours of weights and/or cardio exercise per week | 16.5
- Extremely Active: 7+ hours of weights and/or cardio exercise per week | 17+
- Cardio includes anything from walking, running, biking, swimming, yoga, pilates, step aerobics, and the likes.
- If you have a rather strenuous job, such as construction, or mechanics, or something similar, then you’re likely going to require more calories for maintenance than laid out (hint: bump your calculation up a modifier)
Step 2: Multiply your bodyweight in pounds by the activity level modifier above (for metric conversions, take your weight in kilograms x 2.2).
Example: if you’re moderately active, you’d multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 15.
Step 3: Put this into practice and monitor your weight over two weeks. If you gain weight, then you know you’re eating above your maintenance intake needs. If you lose weight, then you’re eating below your maintenance intake needs.
Maintenance is an average over time, so it’s best to weigh yourself frequently, every day (or every other day) and take an average over 14 days. The reason for this is because you’re not going to weigh the same every day and if you only weighed yourself twice over two weeks, it might look like you lost or gained weight when in fact you’ve maintained.
Example: On day one you weighed in at 190 pounds and day 14 you weighed in at 194 pounds. From those two measurements alone, you would assume you gained weight.
But if you weigh yourself daily, you might find that some days you weigh 188 and others you weigh 191. But on the day before you saw the 194, you happened to go to a barbeque and eat a bunch of wings and burgers, which caused you to retain more water than normal, causing you to weigh a few extra pounds when you weighed in.
One more note for accuracy: when weighing yourself, it’s best to do it under the same conditions every single day. I prefer to do it in the morning when I wake up right after I urinate, and before drinking or eating anything.
How To Find Maintenance Without A Fancy Calculator
If you want to determine your maintenance calories without using fancy calculators or equations, the best thing to do is track your intake every day for 10-14 days and track your body weight over that time period. If you gain weight, you’ll know you need to eat less. If you lose weight, you’ll need to eat more.
The main thing here is to be as accurate as possible with your tracking, so be sure to check out the following resources:
And finally… here’s a calculator that does the work for you.