Apple Watch Active Calories vs. Total Calories | What Are the Differences?

Apple Watch and iPhone Fitness App with Activity Rings Credit: Chinnapong / Shutterstock
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There’s always something new to learn when it comes to personal health – whether it’s a new workout or a new term you’ve never even heard of. Today, we’ll focus on the latter.

We can’t tell you which workouts to do — we’ll leave that to Apple Fitness+— but what we can do is explain what kind of calories your Apple Watch has been tracking. 

If you’ve paid attention to your Fitness app on your iPhone, you’ve probably noticed that you can see two different types of calories.

You can see the Active calories as well as the Total calories you’ve burned throughout the day.

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No, that’s not a mistake. It’s actually a clever way for your Apple Watch to discern if you’ve actually worked out. Here’s what you need to know. 

How to See Active Calories and
Total Calories on an iPhone

Unfortunately, your Apple Watch will only show you your Active calories, so if you want to dive a little deeper, you’ll need to go to your iPhone.

  1. Open the Fitness app. 
  2. Make sure you’re in the Summary tab in the bottom left corner of your screen.
  3. Tap on your Activity Summary at the top of your screen.
  4. Under the Move summary, you’ll see the total Active calories you’ve burned, and just below the graph, you’ll see the Total calories you’ve burned. 

Total Calories | Apple Knows When You Haven’t Worked Out

Admit it, you’ve been lying on the couch, binge-watching Netflix, and all of a sudden, you can see in the Fitness app that you’ve burned a lot of total calories like it’s magic. It seems odd, right? You weren’t doing anything, and yet, you got an achievement. Well, the truth is that you did burn calories, just not in the way you think.

We’re constantly burning calories just by being alive, even when we’re not doing any exercise. Your Apple Watch represents those calories as total calories on your daily report in the Fitness app.

What About Active Calories?

As you can probably guess, Active calories are the number of calories you burn when you’re doing any physical activity. Whether you’re working out or running to catch the bus, that counts as Active calories you’re burning. 

How Does My Apple Watch Calculate These Different Types of Calories?

But that raises the question: How does the Apple Watch know how many calories are Active and the others are passive? Well, it’s all thanks to a little thing called the basal metabolic rate.

Your basal metabolic rate, or BMR for short, is the rate of energy expenditure per unit time when you’re at rest. In other words, it’s the number of calories you’re burning when you’re doing nothing. 

There’s a lot of math behind the BMR. To figure out the exact amount of calories or “heat production” when you’re resting, you need to follow one of the BMR estimation formulas, which is actually easier than you think.

If you’re not into math, just know that in order to calculate your BMR estimation, you need to know your sex, mass (weight), height, and age. Sound familiar? That’s the information you’ve already entered in your Fitness app. 

Once your Apple Watch knows your BMR estimation, it’s just a matter of removing the basal metabolic rate from your total calories, and you’ll get your active calories. 

Can I Update My BMR Info?

I’ll be the first to admit that filling a bunch of personal data into your Apple Watch isn’t that exciting, so we can’t blame you if you didn’t really enter the right information. Or maybe you just want to update your details, Either way; you can change it at any time you want. Just follow these steps: 

  1. On your iPhone, open the Watch app.
  2. Make sure you’re in the My Watch tab in the bottom left corner.
  3. Scroll down and tap on Health.
  4. Select Health Details.
  5. Tap on Edit in the top right corner of your screen.
  6. Change all the details you want.
  7. When you finish, tap on Done.

Is There Anything Else I Need to Know?

Nope, that’s pretty much it. The Apple Watch is very particular when it comes to calories since not every smartwatch or fitness device discerns Active calories from resting calories. 

This means that the Activity ring on your Apple Watch won’t count the calories you burn while resting. That way, you’ll know that you actually did something to earn your rings, unlike other fitness devices. 

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