With the Rio Olympics starting in two week’s time, we looked at 28 different Olympic events to assess the rate at which they burn calories, the muscles in the body they work, and how they can help to form part of a healthy lifestyle.

  • The NHS recommends two and a half hours of moderate-level (or one and quarter hours of intense-level) cardiovascular exercise each week; in addition to strength training on two or more days.
  • We based our figures on 30-minute exercise sessions (five of which per week would add up to a 150-minute total).
  • We also looked at the food equivalent of the number of calories burned per session, for the top 10 Olympic events.
  • Regular exercise reduces the risk of diet-related disease, cardiovascular illness, joint and muscle pain and a host of other conditions.

The number of calories burned by an activity depends on the weight of the person undertaking it. The calorie burn figures are provided immediately below are based on someone weighing the UK average of 11 stone.

However we have also provided a full reference table at the foot of this page, detailing the estimated number of calories each activity burns in relation to 10 different weight levels (from 8 stone up to 17 stone).

RUNNING

10_Running _0.2(1)

  • Highest rate of calorie burn of all 28 events. Someone weighing 11 stone running at marathon speed would burn an estimated 465 calories in half an hour.
  • This is the calorie equivalent of a steak and kidney pie.

BOXING

09_Boxing _02(1)

  • For an 11 stone person, 30 minutes boxing would burn 448 calories.
  • This is the same number of calories as there are in a double cheeseburger.

KAYAKING

Kayaking

  • Competitive-level kayaking would help an 11 stone person burn 437 calories in 30 minutes.
  • The drink equivalent: two large glasses of wine.

ROWING

02_Rowing _0.7(1)

  • Rowing sits just below kayaking, with a calorie burn figure of 420.
  • Calorie equivalent: a regular portion of French fries.

CYCLING

07_Cycling _0.2(1) (1)

  • Road cycling burns around 420 calories per 30 minutes.
  • Calorie equivalent: two slices of pepperoni pizza.

JUDO

03_Judo _0.2(1)

  • Burns 360 calories per half hour.
  • The same number of calories in two caffe lattes.

TAE KWON DO

04_Taekwondo _0.2(1)

  • 360 calorie burn rate per 30 minutes of action.
  • The calorie equivalent of two pints of beer.

FOOTBALL

05_Soccer _0.2-Football (1)

  • 30 minutes of football burns 350 calories.
  • The same number of calories to be found in a vanilla milkshake.

SWIMMING

08_Swimming (1)

  • 30 minutes swimming burns 343 calories.
  • The calorie equivalent of four chocolate digestives.

WATER POLO

06_Water -Polo _0.2(1)

  • Calorie burn rate of 350 per half hour.
  • The same number you can expect to find in a chocolate fudge cake.

Why choose sport over straight-up exercise?

We’re constantly extolling the virtues of regular exercise and sports are, for the majority perhaps, the most enjoyable way of going about it. Participating in a physical challenge with friends encourages us to push ourselves that little bit harder, and achieve more than we thought we could.

Furthermore, participating in a team sport constitutes something of an unwritten commitment to exercise. Whereas it can be quite easy to call off an individual gym session if the sudden disinclination takes us, we’ll generally be more reluctant to pull out of a training session with teammates and let them down.

One group of people who perhaps know this as much as anyone else are those athletes on their way to compete in Rio. Even those who are participating in individual events are still representing their wider team and country; which will no doubt give them added incentive to push their bodies to the limit.

We know that olympians tend to be among the best-conditioned people on the planet, and make their respective sports look much easier on television than they are in reality.

But for the budding or out-of-practice exerciser, looking to get back into the swing of a fitness regime, taking up an olympic sport can be a very effective route.

The study: which sport burns the most?

Of course, different events present different challenges. Cycling and swimming for example, are about speed and endurance; basketball and gymnastics agility and skill; while golf and shooting are more dependent on accuracy and temperament.

Burning calories is one of the prime objectives of exercise, and a process which lowers our risk of conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and helps us to stay healthy. But obviously, how many calories each sporting activity burns tends to vary greatly.

As mentioned above, we thought it might be interesting to explore this further. With Rio just around the corner, we took a look at 28 different olympic events, to determine which activity shifts the most calories.

Methodology

The number of calories someone burns when performing an activity depends on their level of exertion and their body mass, and we wanted our research to serve as a reference for everyone.

So to calculate the calorie burn total for each sport, we referred to The 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: The Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

For a range of physical activities, including competitive sports, the compendium assigns something called a Metabolic Equivalent Task (MET) value.

Using this method, the number of calories burned performing an activity is calculated by:

  • taking a person’s weight in kilograms;
  • multiplying this by the number of hours they’re performing an activity for;
  • then multiplying the sum by the MET value.

So, for instance, the MET value given to the use of a ski machine is 6.8. Therefore, for a person weighing 70kg using a ski machine for half an hour, the calorie burn would be (70 x 0.5) x 6.8, providing a total of 238 kcal.

The events

Where feasible, we wanted to provide an idea of the calories someone might expect to burn when performing an activity to a competitive level.

Looking at the calorie burn total (and food or drink equivalent) of 28 different olympic events, here’s what we found:

Running

That running topped our Olympic list of calorie burning events might come as a surprise to some, but serves to demonstrate just how effective a simple, straightforward activity can be when you use enough exertion.

Of course, the calorie burning properties of running depend on the speed and level of effort.

For instance, running at 14mph has a MET value of 23. Usain Bolt is thought to have pushed 28 mph when previously competing in the 100m sprint; but obviously speeds in this range would be impossible for even the man himself to sustain beyond a few seconds.

For this reason, we’ve chosen to go with the marathon event, where olympic competitors will generally run 6.5-minute/miles; still fast, but more sustainable than an all-out sprint.

According to the activity compendium, marathon running still carries a considerable MET value of 13.3, making it the heaviest hitter of our chosen 28 when it comes to calorie burn. For someone weighing the UK average of 11st (or 70kg), 30 minutes running at marathon speed would burn 465 calories.

In terms of muscle exertion, there’s more to running than just legs. Sure enough, calves, hamstring, quads and glutes all get a thorough workout, but core strength is crucial too, and upper body and arm muscles will be taxed as the runner uses these areas to maintain balance.

Boxing

Boxing ranked second highest amongst the events we looked at.

Obviously different intensity levels of this activity have different calorie burn levels. Working out on a punching bag has a MET value of 5.5; sparring 7.8; but an in-ring bout has a MET value of a whopping 12.8.

Boxing matches are broken up into three minute rounds, so it’s highly unlikely that someone would continue to box without rest for half an hour. But looking at the in-ring calorie burn rate as a comparative measure, someone boxing for 30 minutes straight would in theory burn a whopping 448 calories. That’s the calorie equivalent of a double cheeseburger.

This is why conditioning for boxers is so key. Particularly for competitors in lower weight brackets, excellent cardiovascular fitness and lean muscle are required to be able to keep up with the high rate of energy expenditure.

Incidentally, rope jumping (skipping to us Brits), an exercise traditionally favoured by boxers, has a very high MET value too: ranging between 8.8 and 12.3 depending on speed. Someone who weighs 70kg and jumps at a rate of 120-160 reps per minute will burn almost as many calories as they would boxing or running 7-minute/miles (430kcal for every 30 minutes).

Kayaking and rowing

Water sports kayaking (or canoeing) and rowing ranked third and forth for calorie burn.

Again, whether one is canoeing for pleasure or competitively greatly varies the burn rate. Canoeing at a slow, leisurely pace only spends about as many calories as walking does.

But kayaking in competition requires much intenser exertion; not just from the arms and shoulders, but from the entire upper body, including the core, oblique, back and pectoralis muscles.

Kayaking at a rate of 6 mph or more has a MET value of 12.5, meaning a 70kg person would burn 437 calories in 30 minutes of doing so. This equates to about the same as two glasses of wine.

Competition rowing as part of a crew has a slightly lower, yet still considerable calorie burn rate. In this event, the effort of pulling the vessel is shared with other team members, and the anatomical exertion is also shared more evenly; as well as taxing the upper body and arms, rowing also requires quad, hamstring and calf strength.

Cycling

Once more, calorie burn when cycling is determined by effort and speed.

Racing ‘very fast’ at a speed of between 16 and 19 mph according to the Compendium has a MET value of 12, and this is the level of exertion we’ve selected for our data.

However those cycling at a speed above 20mph or on a constant uphill circuit may see the MET value of their activity rise higher even than this, to above 15.

As well as working the lower body muscles (calves, hamstrings and quads) cycling also taxes the core muscles, glutes and hips.

And good news for BMX racers is that this event provides a great means of exercise too. Jumps and twisting in the air will mean that the muscle load for competitors is slightly more spread out; core muscles, obliques, arms and shoulders will also see some action in addition to lower body muscles.

Judo and taekwondo

These two martial arts carry the same calorie value: half an hour competing in these activities for someone weighing 11st will burn 360 calories.

Although they do carry the same MET value, their muscle focus is slightly different. Taekwondo provides a vigorous workout for the core muscles, lower back, legs and hips; while judo, in addition to utilising these muscles too, will also require considerable upper body power.

Football and rugby

Rugby enthusiasts might be disheartened to hear that football carried a higher MET value (10) than their beloved sport (8.3).

Half an hour of football would burn 350 calories for someone weighing 11st, whereas half an hour of rugby for a person at this weight would use up 290.

But when you take into consideration that the average rugby player will be heavier (around 16-17st) than the average soccer player (between 10-12 st), the calorie burn figure for rugby players will typically exceed that for football players. As demonstrated in our table, a 16st person playing for half an hour would burn around 420 calories.

Both sports require endurance and short sprinting bursts from players. The position played will also impact upon which muscles and body parts players use the most.

In football, attacking players and wingers will tend to be smaller and require speed and leg strength, whereas holding midfielders and defenders will also need to call on their shoulder and upper body strength to jostle for position and wrestle the ball away from the opposition.

Of course in rugby, every player on the pitch will require considerable leg and upper body strength, but wingers will also need to utilise speed in addition to strength.

Swimming and water polo

Fitness experts often point to swimming as one of the most comprehensive cardiovascular workouts around; freestyle swimming works nearly every muscle in the body, particularly when the swimmer alternates between strokes every few laps.

Water polo requires short bursts of speed just as other team sports do, and delivering balls will work the shoulders and arms extensively. But the rule that players feet aren’t permitted to touch the ground during play adds to the lower body intensity of the activity. Even when play has stopped, participants tread water, making core and leg strength all the more essential.

Just starting out? Don't push too hard at first

It’s important to remember that the calorie burn figures provided above are given at highly competitive levels; when embarking on a programme of exercise, it’s always better to ease oneself in first (and, particularly if you have a pre-existing condition, consult a doctor about the exercise programme which will work best for you).

But even though those new to exercise may need to take it slowly when starting out, and might not see instant results, it’s crucial to stick with it and get into the habit of regular physical activity. Doing so will help to establish a habit of keeping fit, which will produce beneficial effects; and, in time hopefully, have you burning calories like an olympian.

The full results

Olympics Table UK (1)

Notes:

  • All figures are estimates based on calculations using the 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities.
  • Competitive levels of the events were chosen from the Compendium where possible.
  • Showjumping was chosen to be representative of the Equestrian event.