Everyday Calorie Burners

Too tired to hit the gym? Simple tips on how to burn calories doing everyday activities.

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on August 16, 2013
6 min read

Is your day jam-packed with commitments -- work, school, errands, housecleaning, child care? Do you laugh at the notion of even having 30 minutes to fit in an exercise DVD, much less time to run to the gym?

That doesn’t mean you can’t get a good workout every day, just as part of your daily routine. Find out which everyday activities burn the most calories and how you can make them just a little bit more challenging, to raise your fitness level.

This is the place where you can really burn some calories and build strength, so don’t hire out all your yard work. “Depending on the season, you can always do something that’s very energy-consuming: shoveling snow in the winter, raking and bagging leaves in the spring, summer, and fall,” says Joshua Margolis, a personal trainer and the founder of Mind Over Matter Fitness in New York City.

How many calories do typical outdoor activities burn? It varies a lot depending on your size (the heavier you are, the more you burn), age (younger people burn more calories), and how much muscle you have (muscle burns more calories than fat). But on average, here’s what you might expect to burn per hour while cleaning up your yard:

  • Shoveling snow: 400-600 calories per hour
  • Heavy yard work (landscaping, moving rocks, hauling dirt): 400-600 calories per hour
  • Raking and bagging leaves: 350-450 calories per hour
  • Gardening: pulling weeds, planting flowers, etc.: 200-400 calories per hour
  • Mowing the lawn: 250-350 calories per hour

“Raking and bagging leaves is particularly good because you also do a lot of bending, twisting, lifting, and carrying -- all things that can build strength and engage a lot of muscle fibers,” says Margolis. “You just have to be careful to do these things properly, bending at the knees and not straining your back. Gardening is great, too, because you’re constantly getting up and down, stretching, bending, and reaching to pull the weeds.”

How can you amp up the calorie-burning power of your yard work? Go old school, Margolis says:

  • Turn in your power mower for a push mower. You’ll probably burn about 100 calories more per hour and it’s better for the environment!
  • Exchange electric hedge trimmers for hand-held clippers.
  • Make everything a little more challenging. When you bring home plants from the garden store, take them back to the yard one flat at a time rather than stacking them on a wheelbarrow and moving them all at once.

Cleaning house is definitely a calorie burner, but it’s not quite as challenging as most outdoor work, Margolis says. “Unless there’s a new sport I haven’t heard of called speed vacuuming, you aren’t really elevating your heart rate much.”

The approximate average calorie count of typical housecleaning activities is:

  • Major cleaning (turning mattresses, washing windows, washing the car): 175-250 calories per hour.
  • Moderate housecleaning (laundry loads, mopping and sweeping, vacuuming): 150-200 calories per hour
  • Light housecleaning (dusting, straightening up, taking out the trash): 120-170 calories per hour.
  • Child care: 300-600 calories per hour (depending on how old the kids are and how active they are)

Just as with outdoor chores, to make these housecleaning tasks more of a workout, you’ve got to get back in time. Turn to an old-fashioned mop and a bucket full of soapy water that you have to carry and occasionally dump and wring out.

“Scrub,” advises Andrea Giancoli, MPH, RD, a nutrition policy consultant for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. “There’s an old saying that elbow grease is what gets things clean. It burns more calories too.”

Giancoli also suggests switching arms -- if you’re left-handed, scrub with your right and vice versa. “It makes it harder to do and tires out your muscles faster. Trying to become ambidextrous will burn more calories, help you move your body in a new and challenging way, and keep your brain alert.”

You’re probably trying to be efficient when you haul three loads of laundry up the stairs all at once -- but you’re not burning that many calories. Instead, take advantage of your built-in “home StairMaster,” and take the clothes up one load at a time.

Taking care of your kids is perhaps one of the best ways to burn extra calories while doing chores around the house. Make your toddler giggle by pressing them up and down like a barbell 10 or 20 times.

And don’t just sit there watching them: do what they do. “Mimic the child’s movements: if he rolls on the ground, you do it,” says Margolis. “If she climbs on the monkey bars, you do it. If he spins in a circle until he falls down, you do it.”

If you’re running errands, be a little bit inefficient. Don’t organize your grocery list by aisle -- so if you have to run back and forth a few times to get all the things you need, that’s just fine.

“When was the last time you took your grocery cart back to the corral?” asks Giancoli. “Next time you go shopping, park at the farthest space, and when you come back, take your cart all the way to the corral nearest the door. Get one more that someone else has left behind and bring it back too. You’ll burn a few extra calories and do a little good deed too.”

There are still some jobs where you’ll get a lot of exercise: farming, stocking shelves, doing personal training. But these days, 80% of us work jobs that either confine us to our desks or require only light physical activity -- burning about 120-150 calories an hour.

So how can you keep your work from broadening more than your mind?

If you’re really committed to getting more exercise in your daily life, you could ask your boss to invest in the newly popular “treadmill desks” -- they cost $2,000 and up and let you work and work out at the same time. Or if you have a treadmill of your own, there are desks that fit over a treadmill and cost under $500. Giancoli bought an extra-tall desk that lets her stand while she types on the computer (you burn more calories standing than sitting), along with a barstool for times when she needs to sit.

Not that committed or can’t spare that much extra cash? A stability ball is a lot cheaper than a new desk, and depending on where you work, you could use it as a desk chair. “It will burn a few extra calories an hour, but its real benefit is building the core strength in your abdomen and back muscles,” Margolis says.

Or just set the timer on your computer calendar to go off every 50 minutes. When it rings, stand up and walk around your office for the next 10 minutes. (Get a cordless phone so you can keep up with your calls.)

“Any time you don’t have to sit, don’t,” Giancoli advises. “If you’re on the phone and don’t have to be looking at the computer, stand up and walk around your office or cubicle. Need to send a message to a colleague? Walk down the hall and talk to them instead of using interoffice email.”

Try to make your commute more of a workout as well. If you ride the train or bus, get off a stop earlier than usual and add a few walking blocks to your day on each end. If you drive, park as far away in the lot as possible.

To get the most calorie burn out of all of your everyday activities, Margolis says, there are three key principles:

  1. Be old-fashioned. Don’t use a motor when a hand tool will do.
  2. Be inefficient. Don’t make one trip when you can make three. Or five.
  3. Do it yourself.

“We’ve reached a point in our society where we can have so much done for us: groceries delivered, our houses cleaned, our dogs walked,” Margolis says. “But the more you outsource these tasks, the more sedentary you become.”