Would Minutes of Exercise Be a Better Metric Than Calorie Counts?

By Veronique Greenwood | December 19, 2011 3:10 pm


When we rip open a 100-calorie snack pack, few of us have an idea of how much energy that really is–or how much walking, biking, or schlepping groceries it will take to burn it off. But what if nutrition labels included descriptions of how much exercise you’d need to burn off that candy bar?

One recent study explored that possibility by testing the effects of signs describing in one of three different ways the energy contained in a sugary drink. Researchers found that a sign that said “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” halved the number of drinks purchased from a drink cooler by African American teenagers, while signs that mentioned calorie count or percentage of total recommended calorie intake did not have a significant effect. Though the study was pretty small, and thus should be verified with larger studies, the effect seems plausible, given that exercise is a much more concrete measure of energy value than calories. Some health campaigns have in fact already taken up this tactic: if you’re a New Yorker, you may have noticed subway ads using exactly this strategy, linking the calories in a 20-oz soda with the three-mile walk between Yankee Stadium and Central Park.

Of course, the strategy’s not without its flaws. There’s a lot of variation in how many calories a given activity actually burns, depending on age, weight, metabolism, and various other factors that we haven’t figured out ways to measure yet, so the label would just be giving a ballpark estimate. And you’d want to see how different populations of people would react to such a label; you wouldn’t want it to exacerbate overexercising and eating disorders in teenage girls, for instance.

But given how calorie-crammed most processed foods are these days, it might not be such a bad idea to get a reality check every now and then. When you consider how much time you spend sitting down each day, and consider a candy bar that would take two hours’ jog to burn o, you might start thinking more clearly about how much, and what, you actually need to eat.

[via Scientific American]

Image courtesy of SeveStJude / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Wendy

    That would be awesome!!!! – ESPECIALLY for restaurant menus.

  • doug bennion

    It would be a good idea. The calorie math, very approximately, is this:

    100 calories = 1 mile walked or jogged

    3500 calories = 1 pound = 35 miles

    So what’s easier to do? Not eat that piece of pie, or jog 4 miles?

  • JTWrenn

    Only issue I have with this is that there is not way to give an accurate time for everyone. 1 soda is 50 minutes for one person and far less for another. Different for a man and a woman. Different for people of different weight, muscle mass, and physical ability level. So how would you handle it so that it is easy for people to figure out?

  • Lance

    JTWrenn – exactly and it is a problem when they use a statement of “given that exercise is a much more concrete measure of energy value than calories”. Exercise time may be more understandable but it is much less concrete than calories which have a very specific scientific meaning whereas calorie burn per minute of exercise is extremely variable.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Hey, although inaccurate, it’s a much better measure than what is on the labels today. I had no idea what it took to burn a calorie until I got onto one of those modern exercise bikes. And YIKES!! I had to exercise forever to burn 100 cal.
    Look at today’s obesity rates and you’ll see that although it’s inaccurate


    It doesn’t have to be 100% accurate 97% of the time because what we have now is not understood by 97% of the population 100% of the time.

  • TommyGreenJr

    hehe, why was the study only carried out on african american teenagers?

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @Tommy, African American teenagers have one of the highest consumption rates of sugary drinks, and the researchers were interested in seeing whether the signs would work in that population.

  • Michelle

    As a mother of an anorexic girl, I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s hard enough to get her to consume enough calories, under this scenarior she will be exercising more than she already does to burn off whatever she ingested. Since there are so many anorectics out there, it could literally cause thousands of deaths.

  • Cathy

    This also doesn’t take into account that the average human body burns 50-100 calories every hour just by being alive, so you need a minimum of ~1000-1200 calories in general just to function every day (and most people will lose weight with that caloric intake.) Of course, those 1200 calories are best from nutricious sources instead of junk food.

    Michelle, if your daughter truly has anorexia, that is a medical condition and I do hope you have helped her seek treatment. But the thousands of anorexic and bulemic patients in the country do not negate the two hundred million overweight or obese people.

  • yannai segal

    Does the amount of time exercising include the normal amount of calories consumed per minute (to keep the heart beating etc.)?
    Otherwise it can be very misleading, because even without exercise we burn calories.

  • Chris

    I think they should put the exercise times just on junk foods (candy, soda…) but leave them off the healthy foods (fruit, vegetables) Might reduce consumption of the bad, increase consumption of the good. Of course it’s never that simple in real life, advertisers and lobbyists would be a pain.

  • floodmouse

    Labeling foods with the amount of exercise needed to work them off would definitely improve people’s cause-effect thinking. On the other hand, I’m bothered by the idea that people think exercise is a bad thing, and you shouldn’t eat just because you’ll have to exercise afterward to get the weight off.

    The real problem is simply that people in industrialized society’s don’t get enough exercise. (One hour at the gym is no substitute for eight hours of physical labor.) Strangely enough, moderate amounts of exercise actually reduce the appetite.

  • m

    It would be easy to assign a figure that works for everyone, though mostly women are the one who care about it. I would have a picture of a man with a number on its Belly, a woman with a number on its thighs! Then they can visualise where its going as well.

    People who have eating disorders like anorexia are completely irrelevant to this, as they are on a doctored monitored, home monitored system that has nothing to do with the general population.

  • Minnie

    It works for me personally. As someone who exercises regularly but hates the pain of it, I often pass on food treats because I know, in general, that it will “cost” me in exercise, and it just isn’t worth it. Exact counts don’t matter, the basic awareness is enough for me.

  • Geack

    We’ve never had a problem giving people nutrition info based on hypothetical “typicals” – the most obvious being the % Daily Values on all our food. Giving a typical amount of exercise would work just as well. And I agree that it would give people a MUCH more useful sense of how much energy they’re taking in.

  • Max

    I think this would further the idea engraved in Americans minds, that “calories are bad”. Calories are neccessary regardless if you are excersizing or not. If a food item says “50 minutes of running to burn this off” than according to this idea i shouldnt eat anything if im not going to do some running. In reality im burning calories as i sit in chair writing this.

    As an active person i count calories as a way too make sure i have enough energy for an activity and to replace caloric debt. Getting to know your body is how you should monitor your calories. By minimal research and mostly experience i can tell when im eating too many calories(by the belly fat that starts too show up) or too little (feeling fatigued/headaches).

    This is just another thing Americans want handed to them, when in reality we should be monitoring these things ourselves.

    I think it would be a good idea to simply put the DV% next to the calories. i think that would be useful for how mange your calories without further reenforcing the stigma attached to calories.

  • Ug

    People wanting things to be “handed to them” is never going to change, just because you made a personal choice to pay attention doesn’t mean anyone else will or even should. Your going off the “everyone should be like me” mentallity and that just wont ever happen. So if this is a good way to deal with the obesity problem we have in this country I say go for it.

  • Bear1951

    Or. People could be educated about the meaning of “calorie” and make their own informed decisions regarding how many to consume without food/beverage manufacturers having to be responsible for how much of their product people consume. Those who make “wrong” decisions – based on the science-of-the-day (remember when coconut oil was bad for you?) – will have to live with the consequences.

  • vega

    On the one hand, given food[s and food product]s may very well represent different ‘exercise time’ values to different people.
    On the other, many food[s and food product]s that do not come prepackaged are permitted by law a margin of error of 20% either way (1000 calories could be 800-1200).
    Could they cancel each other out?

    I’d also appreciate:
    a) exercise times on low-nutrient density food[s and food product]s, but calorie counts on high-nutrient-density foods
    b) distinction between low-nutrient-density food[s and food product]s, and high-nutrient-density foods (biased towards foods, and away from food ‘products’)

  • Vikram

    I’m curious… if the problem is anorexia, can we instead change the labels to state how many hours of regular, healthy life (or some better worded synonym/phrase) they typically provide? The algorithms we use would be “biased towards foods, and away from food products” as #19 put it. So imagine if you were eating 48 hours of healthy life in 24… you’d feel weird about it at least, sort of zombielike. Plus I think that fits intuitively with the sensation of a serious sugar rush. You could also have multiple healthy-life hour listings (bars plus count format?) for a bunch of different (obviously, trying for non-controversial) demographics. For instance adult women supposedly on average handle fat metabolism better and carb metabolism poorer than adult men.

    Though this does seem liable to the “crazies” counterarg.

  • Vikram

    Personally though, surely the anorexic should be guided away from overexercise as well by the minutes. Forcing them to exercise in some way that forces moderate intensity… I can’t see how that wouldn’t work, outside of them injuring themselves trying to get to higher intensities.


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