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Average Person Can't Burn More than 4,000 Calories a Day, Says New Study

When it comes to long-term physical activities, even the world’s fastest ultra-marathoners cannot burn calories at more than 2.5 times their resting metabolic rate, or 4,000 calories per day for an average person.

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Updated:June 11, 2019, 4:44 PM IST
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Average Person Can't Burn More than 4,000 Calories a Day, Says New Study
even the fatest marathon runners cannot burn more that 2.5 times their resting metabolic rate, which is even lower for people with average fitness, new study proves Image | Image credit: Reuters
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There’s only so much even the bodies of top athletes can take, scientists have found.

When it comes to long-term physical activities, even the world’s fastest ultra-marathoners cannot burn calories at more than 2.5 times their resting metabolic rate, or 4,000 calories per day for an average person, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances. Once past this threshold, the body starts to break down its own tissues to make up for the deficit.

“This defines the realm of what’s possible for humans,” said study co-author Herman Pontzer, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

Researchers analyzed data from some of the most extreme human endurance events, measuring the resting metabolic rate and the calories burned by people participating in the 140-day transcontinental ‘Race Across the USA.’

By analyzing urine samples from the runners in the first and last legs of the race, the researchers found that after five months of running, the athletes were burning far fewer calories compared to beginning of the race.

They also compared the results to already-published data from other activities such as marathons, swimming, Arctic trekking, the Tour de France, and earlier years of Race Across the USA, according to a Live Science report.

The researchers found that it was harder to burn calories during longer events. However, during short-term activities, the human body can sustain burning calories at many more times the resting metabolic rate.

For example, during a single marathon, runners can burn calories at an average of 15.6 times their resting metabolic rate, according to the study. In the 23 days of the Tour de France, cyclists burned calories 4.9 times their resting metabolic rate, and in a 95-day trek across the Antarctic, hikers burned calories at 3.5 times the resting metabolic rate.

Thus, the body seems to have a limit to the amount of energy it can provide in the long term.

"There's just a limit to how many calories our guts can effectively absorb per day," Pontzer said in a statement.

"You can sprint for 100 meters, but you can jog for miles, right? That's also true here," Pontzer added.

Pregnant women were shown to sustain around 2.2 times their resting metabolic rate, just slightly lower than the maximum sustainable energy expenditure found among endurance athletes.

While the researchers argue that the 2.5 mark appears to be the current hard limit for humans, it isn’t unimaginable for some to cross this threshold.

"So I guess it's a challenge to elite endurance athletes," Pontzer concluded. "Science works when you're proven wrong. Maybe someone will break through that ceiling some day and show us what we're missing."

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