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Maximal Sustained Levels of Energy Expenditure in Humans during Exercise


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: December 2011 - Volume 43 - Issue 12 - p 2359–2367
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31822430ed
Applied Sciences

Migrating birds have been able to sustain an energy expenditure (EE) that is five times their basal metabolic rate. Although humans can readily reach these levels, it is not yet clear what levels can be sustained for several days.

Purpose The study’s purposes were 1) to determine the upper limits of human EE and whether or not those levels can be sustained without inducing catabolism of body tissues and 2) to determine whether initial body weight is related to the levels that can be sustained.

Methods We compiled data on documented EE as measured by doubly labeled water during high levels of physical activity (minimum of five consecutive days). We calculated the physical activity level (PAL) of each individual studied (PAL = total EE / basal metabolic rate) from the published data. Correlations were run to examine the relationship between initial body weight and body weight lost with both total EE and PAL.

Results The uppermost limit of EE was a peak PAL of 6.94 that was sustained for 10 consecutive days of a 95-d race. Only two studies reported PALs above 5.0; however, significant decreases in body mass were found in each study (0.45–1.39 kg·wk−1 of weight loss). To test whether initial weight affects the ability to sustain high PALs, we found a significant positive correlation between TEE and initial body weight (r = 0.46, P < 0.05) but no correlation between PAL and body weight (r = 0.27, not statistically significant).

Conclusions Some elite humans are able to sustain PALs above 5.0 for a minimum of 10 d. Although significant decreases in body weight occur at this level, catabolism of body tissue may be preventable in situations with proper energy intake. Further, initial body weight does not seem to affect the sustainability of PALs.

1Department of Nutrition, Hospitality, and Retailing, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX; 2Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI; and 3Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, The University of Montana, Missoula, MT

Address for correspondence: Jamie A. Cooper, Ph.D., Department of Nutrition, Hospitality, and Retailing, Texas Tech University, P.O. Box 41240, Lubbock, TX 79409; E-mail:

Submitted for publication December 2010.

Accepted for publication May 2011.

©2011The American College of Sports Medicine