Estimating Energy Expenditure
||What types of activities did you do
yesterday? When this question is asked, people often don't remember time spent
vacuuming, raking leaves, climbing stairs, or even watching television. This
can be a problem for scientists, health care practitioners, and physicians as
they try to make health assessments and recommendations for life-style changes.
This kind of information is important, since physical activity is a vital part
of preventing and managing diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and
"Many things contribute to difficulty and inaccuracy in measuring physical
activity in people," says chemist Joan M. Conway, with the
ARS Diet and Human Performance
Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. A main problem is that people may not
report all of their physical activities on questionnaires. This can lead to
errors in estimating energy expenditures. "Physical activity includes
occupational activities, leisure activities, household tasks, social
activities, and physical fitness activities," Conway notes.
To help solve this problem, Conway, ARS colleague James L. Seale, and
university collaborators conducted a study to test how well activity records
and questionnaires estimate daily energy expenditures.
They found that it's possible to use activity records to estimate energy
expenditures in groups, but they are not reliable for individuals.
Questionnaires were less reliable than activity records. Poor questionnaire
design, overestimating time spent moving and using up energy, and a too-small
sample size can cause errors, even in group estimates.
There is a more accurate method, but it's high-tech. Scientists use a test with
doubly labeled water to determine energy expenditure in people. The water
contains heavy forms of hydrogen and oxygen called isotopes, which can be
traced in the urine or blood to determine how much of the isotope is still
present in the body. From this measurement, scientists can determine how much
energy a person used during the study and then calculate average daily energy
expenditure. But this test is expensive, so it's not practical to use with
"Future studies should address redesigning current methods, or developing
new techniques to assess daily physical activity," says Conway.
"These types of studies are important because obesity in Americans is
increasing, and nutrition and life-style decisions are based on this
Weaver-Missick, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Human Nutrition, an ARS National Program (#107)
described on the World Wide Web at http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Joan M. Conway is with the
USDA-ARS Diet and Human
Performance Laboratory, BARC-East, Building 308, Beltsville, MD 20705;
phone (301) 504-8977, fax (301) 504-9098.
"Estimating Energy Expenditure " was
published in the March 2001 issue
of Agricultural Research magazine.