Direct calorimetry: a brief historical review of its use in the study of human metabolism and thermoregulation

Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Sep;117(9):1765-1785. doi: 10.1007/s00421-017-3670-5. Epub 2017 Jul 8.


Direct calorimetry is the gold standard means of measuring human metabolic rate and its use has been fundamental for understanding metabolism in health and disease. While metabolic rate is now more commonly estimated indirectly from measures of the oxygen consumed during respiration, direct calorimetry provides the user with the unique capacity to quantify the heat produced from aerobic and anaerobic metabolism by measuring heat exchange between the body and the environment. This review provides a brief historical overview of the fundamental concepts which underlie direct calorimetry, of pioneer scientists which developed these concepts into functional pieces of equipment and the subsequent use of direct calorimetry to advance our understanding of energy balance, nutrition, and the pathogenesis of metabolic diseases. Attention is directed to seminal studies that successfully employed direct calorimetry to verify that the law of energy conservation also applies to human beings and to establish the validity of indirect calorimetry. Finally, we discuss the more recent use of direct calorimetry for the measurement of whole-body heat exchange and body heat storage in the study of human thermoregulation.

Keywords: Calorimeter; Energy expenditure; Exercise; Heat balance; Heat loss; Heat production; Indirect calorimetry; Resting metabolic rate.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism
  • Body Temperature Regulation*
  • Calorimetry / history
  • Calorimetry / methods*
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans