Measuring Physical Activity

Exercise experts measure activity in metabolic equivalents, or METs. One MET is defined as the energy it takes to sit quietly. For the average adult, this is about one calorie per every 2.2 pounds of body weight per hour; someone who weighs 160 pounds would burn approximately 70 calories an hour while sitting or sleeping.

Moderate-intensity activities are those that get you moving fast enough or strenuously enough to burn off three to six times as much energy per minute as you do when you are sitting quietly, or exercises that clock in at 3 to 6 METs. Vigorous-intensity activities burn more than 6 METs.

One limitation to this way of measuring exercise intensity is that it does not consider the fact that some people have a higher level of fitness than others. Thus, walking at 3 to 4 miles-per-hour is considered to require 4 METs and to be a moderate-intensity activity, regardless of who is doing the activity—a young marathon runner or a 90-year-old grandmother. As you might imagine, a brisk walk would likely be an easy activity for the marathon runner, but a very hard activity for the grandmother.

This table gives examples of light-, moderate-, and vigorous-intensity activity for healthy adults:


<3.0 METs


3.0–6.0 METs


>6.0 METS

  • Walking—slowly
  • Sitting—using computer
  • Standing—light work (cooking, washing dishes)
  • Fishing—sitting
  • Playing most instruments
  • Walking—very brisk (4 mph)
  • Cleaning—heavy (washing windows, vacuuming, mopping)
  • Mowing lawn (walking power mower)
  • Bicycling—light effort (10–12 mph)
  • Badminton—recreational
  • Tennis—doubles
  • Walking/hiking
  • Jogging at 6 mph
  • Shoveling
  • Carrying heavy loads
  • Bicycling fast (14–16 mph)
  • Basketball game
  • Soccer game
  • Tennis—singles

*METs are metabolic equivalents. One MET is defined as the energy it takes to sit quietly. These MET estimates are for healthy adults.



U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Retrieved from

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