Understanding the inner workings of your bod can be overwhelming. I get it. There are more stats to keep tabs on, too, thanks to
smart watches. But whether you’re trying to boost your metabolism, track your fitness progress, or focus on a weight management plan, it’s important to understand one number: your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
What does BMR mean?
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of calories your body burns while performing basic life-sustaining functions like breathing, growing hair, digesting food, and keeping your heart beating, says Alyssa Lombardi, exercise physiologist, running coach, and founder of Alyssa RunFit Coaching. “BMR is the minimum amount of calories that your body needs at rest.”
Meet the experts: Alyssa Lombardi is an ACSM certified clinical exercise physiologist, certified personal trainer, certified running coach, and founder of Alyssa RunFit Coaching. Cara Carmichael, CPT, is a NASM certified personal trainer, OrangeTheory coach, and certified PN nutrition coach.
It’s also important to know what it’s not. BMR is not based on your activity levels or how much you exercise. It is the rate at which your body burns calories to perform essential bodily functions only.
BMR is personal. The number is based on height, weight, gender, age, muscle mass, and body fat. Knowing your BMR can help you stay in tune with weight management and how your body responds to life activities. “As your level of activity, exercise, and age changes, your BMR will change,” says Lombardi. “Checking it every so often can be helpful to know, so you can adjust your lifestyle to maintain a healthy weight.”
That’s just a sneak peek at all that BMR can do. Read on for the complete details of calculating your basal metabolic rate, why knowing your BMR matters, and more from experts.
How To Calculate Your BMR
There are a few different ways to calculate BMR. Getting an exact and totally accurate BMR requires a DEXA scan, says Lombardi. “This is essentially a picture of your body that will tell you the make-up of your body’s fat, muscle, and bone density,” she says. However, DEXA scans use a low dose X-ray, are performed in a hospital, and require an in-person visit with your physician.
Because DEXA scans are not exactly accessible, Lombardi recommends an online calculator like Omni Calculator for an easier (and free!) measurement right at home. While less exact, studies show online calculators using the Harris-Benedict equation take into account your height, weight, age, and gender to give you a rough assessment of your BMR.
Since the Harris-Benedict equation does not factor in muscle mass or body fat there are limitations to its accuracy. You can estimate it yourself with the equation for women below.
Calculate your BMR: 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)
It’s also important to note that men typically have a higher BMR than women. Generally speaking, men are taller and have more muscle mass than women, resulting in a higher BMR, explains Lombardi. The more muscle you have, the higher your BMR will be.
You may be wondering… does my smartwatch give an accurate BMR? The short answer is no. Smartwatch trackers use movement, heart rate, and your height and weight to provide some calorie intel, but do not factor in muscle mass or body fat, both of which contribute to your BMR, says Cara Carmichael, CPT. “The number the watch is creating isn’t necessarily based on the individual,” she says. “It’s a more basic formula and there’s a lot of room for error.”
Even though smartwatches are not 100% accurate, they can give you a good starting point, adds Lombardi. But remember not to dwell on the numbers. Instead, take this information to understand your body and its necessary caloric intake.
BMR Vs. RMR
Don’t confuse your basal metabolic rate with your resting metabolic rate (RMR). “RMR is your BMR plus a very small level of daily activity such as walking to the bathroom, getting out of bed, and eating, but essentially being at rest,” notes Lombardi.
You can think of RMR as how many calories you burn in a day without exercise.
Why BMR Is Useful Health Data
Beyond upping your knowledge (and appreciation!) for how your body works, knowing your BMR can help you reach your health and fitness goals. Here are a few benefits of your BMR:
- Understanding caloric needs. Knowing your BMR can help you determine a nutrition plan and recognize your daily caloric needs, explains Carmichael. “A lot of us don’t truly know how much food we need to consume to get through the day without crashing, but your BMR can serve as a baseline,” she says. By knowing how many calories your body naturally burns, you can gauge how much you need to eat in order to gain (eat more calories than you burn), lose (eat fewer calories than you burn), or sustain weight (eat the same number of calories that you burn).
- Weight management. Whether you are looking to lose or gain weight, understanding your BMR can help speed up the process by giving you necessary information to help set a diet that aligns with your goals, says Lombardi. Once you know your BMR – aka how many calories your body burns for basic functioning – you can use it to base the number of calories needed for the day. The higher your BMR, the more calories you can consume without gaining weight, she explains.
- Tracking fitness progress. If your BMR increases, that generally means you are gaining more muscle and getting stronger, says Lombardi. Since gaining muscle is the most effective way to change your BMR, consistent strength training and tracking your BMR over time can be a great way to measure your progress and #gains.
- Improving metabolism. A high BMR is often associated with a fast metabolism and greater muscle mass, while a low BMR can hint to a slower metabolism, lower muscle mass, and higher percent of body fat, says Carmichael. “A lot of people want to increase their metabolism, but you have to understand that in order to do that, you need to build more muscle and increase your BMR,” she says.
What is a good BMR number?
There isn’t a “good” or “bad” BMR. “Each individual has a different BMR and cannot be compared to one another,” says Carmichael. What is considered to be “healthy” varies depending on the person and their goals. The average BMR for women is around 1400 kcal and about 1700 kcal for men, she says.
Even if you and your workout buddy are the same age, sex, height, weight, and body composition, you still can have different BMRs. Things totally out of your control, like genetics and even organ size, impact BMR.
Can you increase BMR?
Yes, you can increase your BMR. Take a peek at the stats in the BMR equation above, and you’ll get a rough idea of how you can move the BMR needle. Incorporating strength training into your workout and gaining muscle mass is the most effective way to change and increase your BMR, says Carmichael. “Muscle uses a lot more energy than fat while at rest, so at any given weight, the more muscle on your body, the higher your BMR.”
Carmichael suggests incorporating strength training at least twice a week to build muscle and raise your BMR. But remember, consistency is key and change does not happen overnight. “So many people look for quick fixes, but in reality, it’s about sustainability and sustainable habits.”
Changing your BMR can help boost your metabolism, lose weight, gain strength, or set an optimal meal plan, but there is not one magic number.
Bottom line: BMR is a personalized statistic that cannot be compared to anyone else, but measuring yours and learning how your body functions can help you achieve your health and fitness goals.
Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based writer and graduate student at Northwestern Medill. She’s a mass consumer of social media and cares about women’s rights, holistic wellness, and non-stigmatizing reproductive care. As a former collegiate pole vaulter, she has a love for all things fitness and is currently obsessed with Peloton Tread workouts and hot yoga.