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Using METs to Track Physical Activity

METS (metabolic equivalent tasks) can help you understand how different activities affect your energy expenditure.

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Your body burns energy all the time, even as you drive to work or read a book. There are some activities you can do that increase your body’s ability to burn more calories, even as you do less physically active tasks. But how do you know how much energy you are burning throughout the day?  Metabolic equivalent tasks (also called METs) can help you understand how different activities are affecting your energy expenditure. In this article, you’ll learn how METs work, and how you can start using them to track your physical activity progress. 

By Julia Zakrzewski, RD 

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What Are METs?

A MET can provide insight into how hard your metabolic rate is working during exercise compared to rest. This information tells you the exercise intensity, which some people can find helpful to track if they are trying to improve their level of physical activity.¹

As you improve your endurance, you can sustain higher MET activities for longer, which can help you tap into the health benefits associated with physical exercise. This includes: lowering cholesterol, decreasing your waist circumference, lowering your blood glucose levels, and even managing your stress levels.

How Do I Track METs?  

One MET is equivalent to your basal metabolic rate (sometimes called your resting metabolic rate or RMR). It tells you how much energy you are expending just by sitting still, using your lungs to breathe, and your heart pumping blood to your organs. 

Low-intensity exercises have a lower MET value while high-intensity physical activities have a high MET score.² For example, a brisk walk has a MET score of 3-6. Running tends to be more vigorous than walking and has a higher MET score of 8. 

How do you interpret that data? We now know that a brisk walk will burn 3-6 times more energy than if you were sitting, and running can burn 8 times more energy. 

Examples of MET Scores 

MET scores have been assigned to various activities through different sources of literature. Here is a chart with some examples of activities and their different MET scores³.⁴ 

Chart-of-activities-vs-MET-scores

How Many METs to Aim For

The Center for Disease Control recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, and two days dedicated to strength training exercises.⁵

Because the physical activity guidelines are listed in minutes, it can be helpful to turn MET scores into MET minutes, which can be easier to track for some people. The Department of Human Health Services states that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise equates to 500-1000 MET minutes. 

Opting for activities with a MET score of at least 3 and above can help you hit this target goal faster. Expending your energy consistently throughout the week can help with weight management and help you achieve your weight loss goals. 

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How Many METs Should Someone Exercise at?

You should exercise at a MET intensity level that is within your physical abilities. 

Very fit people may be able to run fast at a MET of 12.0, while new runners may be more comfortable exercising at a MET score closer to 4.0.

When you start working out it is important to develop healthy exercise habits that you can do on a consistent basis and can easily fit into your schedule. Pushing yourself beyond your limits may give you short-term satisfaction in the heat of the moment (especially if you are competitive), but it can increase your risk of injury. It’s important to learn when to push harder, and when to pull back. 

Should I Only Focus on High Met Score activities?

No, not necessarily. The great part about following the MET system is the freedom to change exercises, as long as you hit your intensity goals. But it is worth noting that combining both medium and high-intensity activities will help you meet your MET minutes faster, which can appeal to people who are on a tight schedule (and it can keep things more interesting). 

Including light MET scores into your daily routine can also help increase your metabolic expenditure (remember the calories you burn at the end of the day all add up). You could do this by using a standing desk at work or in your home office. When you are standing you are engaging your leg muscles and your core, so they will work harder and burn more energy compared to  when you are seated.

How are METs and Calories Connected?

You may already track how many calories you burn after a workout. Although counting calories is not everyone’s favorite task, it can give you an idea of how much energy is going in (calories you are eating) versus energy that is going out (calories you are burning). Classically speaking, weight loss can be achieved when you are burning more calories than you are consuming.

You can calculate how many calories you have burned using this MET-specific formula: 

METs x 3.5 x (your body weight in kilograms) / 200 = calories burned per minute.

If you weigh 190 pounds (or 86kg) and you go hiking (which has a MET score of 6), you would fill in the equation like this: 

6 x 3.5 x 86 / 200 = 9.03 calories per minute. 

So if you go hiking for an hour (60 minutes), you’ll burn approximately 542 calories.

Calculating MET Minutes

To calculate your MET minutes you would multiply the MET score by the number of minutes you exercised. Let’s use the above MET score of 6 to finish this example.

6 METs x 60 minutes = 360 MET minutes. 

Remember, the CDC recommends at least 500-1000 MET minutes per week for good health. In this example, you would need to add a few more activities to your exercise routine to hit that target. Most people achieve the minimum requirements by completing 3 workouts per week.

Should I Track My Calories? 

To accurately calculate how many calories and macronutrients you need to be eating in a day, you should also have a good idea of how many you are burning. This will help you understand if you are eating the right amount of food to help you achieve your weight loss (or maintenance) goal and improve your metabolic health. 

The Signos app can help you keep track of this data. It offers recommendations for macronutrients and can help you build a meal plan that matches your energy needs.

Why Do METs Matter?

It is helpful to know how to use METs so you can push yourself during exercise without exceeding the intensity limit and risking an injury.

Competitive athletes, or just regular people, may track MET progress during training. You can use this information to challenge yourself to sustain higher MET levels for longer periods of time or hit higher MET scores during the workouts. They both offer tangible benchmarks which can help you better see improvement in stamina and endurance. 

Another instance in which you may come across MET training is if you have ever suffered a cardiovascular episode, including a heart attack or a new diagnosis of ischemic heart disease. Your doctor will order a stress test (which is a MET intensity test) to see how much your body can tolerate. They will prescribe a specific MET target goal for these people so they can safely exercise. 

Final Takeaway 

METs can help you better understand how different physical activities affect your energy expenditure. You should aim to include a mixture of low, medium, and high MET score activities to achieve your physical activity goals. 500-1000 MET minutes is an appropriate weekly target range for most people. 

Knowing the MET value of your favorite exercises can also help you calculate how many calories you burned during the workout session. This data will be helpful for people who are currently tracking their caloric intake and who have specific weight-related goals.

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References

  1. Jetté, M., Sidney, K., & Blümchen, G. (1990). Metabolic equivalents (METS) in exercise testing, exercise prescription, and evaluation of functional capacity. Clinical cardiology, 13(8), 555–565. https://doi.org/10.1002/clc.4960130809 
  2. Staying Active. (2021, November 30). The Nutrition Source. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/staying-active/#:%7E:text=Thus%2C%20walking%20at%203%20to,90%2Dyear%2Dold%20grandmother
  3. Holtermann, A., & Stamatakis, E. (2019). Do all daily metabolic equivalent task units (METs) bring the same health benefits?. British journal of sports medicine, 53(16), 991–992. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2017-098693 
  4. Jette, M., Sidney, K., & Blumchen, G. (1990, January 17). Metabolic Equivalents (METS) in Exercise Testing, Exercise Prescription, and Evaluation of Functional Capacity. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/clc.4960130809 
  5. Move More; Sit Less. (2022, June 2). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm

About the Author

Julia Zakrzewski is a Registered Dietitian and nutrition writer. She has a background in primary care, clinical nutrition, and nutrition education. She has been practicing dietetics for four years.
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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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