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The Calorie Counter

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The Calorie Counter

Evolutionary anthropologist Herman Pontzer busts myths about how humans burn calories – and why


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Evolutionary anthropologist Herman Pontzer explodes theories about why and how people burn calories. 

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Exercise doesn’t move the needle much in terms of the number of calories people burn each day, according to research by Duke University biological anthropologist Herman Pontzer. This may seem like discouraging news for people struggling to lose unhealthy body fat, but Pontzer’s findings also illuminate how factors such as stress, immune system response and simple body maturation processes all play significant parts in energy use over a human lifetime.


Biological anthropologist Herman Pontzer’s research focuses on how humans burn calories.

In Pontzer’s lab, experiments on humans determine how much energy the body expends exercising, fighting off viruses and dealing with stress. The tests measure the amount of CO2 released in a subject’s breath to determine how much energy has been burned.

A fit 44-year-old, Pontzer is not concerned about personal weight loss. Still, his 2021 book Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Lose Weight, and Stay Healthy has made him a popular talk show guest.

Pontzer’s basic mission is to explore how humans, unlike other great apes, manage long lives, rear multiple children and maintain large brains. He gauges the necessary trade-offs between energy expended on various bodily activities such as reproduction, exercise, illness, vital body functions and stress.

Pontzer’s group found that, on average, exercise doesn’t help people burn more energy than sitting.

Following methods used by physiologists examining obesity, Pontzer’s team measured the total energy animals and people expend ...

About the Author

Ann Gibbons has served as writer on human evolution for Science magazine for more than a decade, and has taught science writing at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of The First Human.

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