Measurement of human energy expenditure, with particular reference to field studies: an historical perspective

Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Aug;112(8):2785-815. doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-2268-6. Epub 2011 Dec 11.


Over the years, techniques for the study of human movement have ranged in complexity and precision from direct observation of the subject through activity diaries, questionnaires, and recordings of body movement, to the measurement of physiological responses, studies of metabolism and indirect and direct calorimetry. This article reviews developments in each of these domains. Particular reference is made to their impact upon the continuing search for valid field estimates of activity patterns and energy expenditures, as required by the applied physiologist, ergonomist, sports scientist, nutritionist and epidemiologist. Early observers sought to improve productivity in demanding employment. Direct observation and filming of workers were supplemented by monitoring of heart rates, ventilation and oxygen consumption. Such methods still find application in ergonomics and sport, but many investigators are now interested in relationships between habitual physical activity and chronic disease. Even sophisticated questionnaires still do not provide valid information on the absolute energy expenditures associated with good health. Emphasis has thus shifted to use of sophisticated pedometer/accelerometers, sometimes combining their output with GPS and other data. Some modern pedometer/accelerometers perform well in the laboratory, but show substantial systematic errors relative to laboratory reference criteria such as the metabolism of doubly labeled water when assessing the varied activities of daily life. The challenge remains to develop activity monitors that are sufficiently inexpensive for field use, yet meet required accuracy standards. Possibly, measurements of oxygen consumption by portable respirometers may soon satisfy part of this need, although a need for valid longer term monitoring will remain.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Portrait
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Actigraphy / history
  • Biomedical Research / history*
  • Biomedical Research / instrumentation
  • Biomedical Research / methods
  • Calorimetry, Indirect / history
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Equipment Design
  • Ergonomics / history*
  • Ergonomics / instrumentation
  • Ergonomics / methods
  • Heart Rate
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / history*
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / instrumentation
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / methods
  • Movement*
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Physiology / history*
  • Physiology / instrumentation
  • Physiology / methods
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Respiratory Rate
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors