It's pretty easy to find the calories burned by walking, jogging or doing a workout on a stair climber. Gym machines, pedometers, books and numerous Web sites offer estimates.
But what about the more mundane actions that clutter daily life, from photocopying and sitting at meetings to grocery shopping and loading the dishwasher? And how do you figure the calories burned by taking the stairs and other so-called "lifestyle activities" that public health officials increasingly urge Americans to engage in more?
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Peter Christensen, a 58-year-old retired technical writer and grandfather of six from Vancouver, Wash., wondered just that. Five years ago, when he couldn't find the information he sought on the Internet, Christensen developed Calories Per Hour (www.caloriesperhour.com), a freeWeb site that provides tools to answer his questions -- and likely many of yours.
While he has no formal training in nutrition, exercise physiology or computer programming, Christensen plumbed the scientific literature for data on calories burned by physical activity and took advantage of the large body of nutrient information available in the public domain.
Calculators used on his site to measure calories burned draw heavily from "Compendium of Physical Activities: An update of activity codes and MET intensities," written by leading exercise physiologists and published in 2000 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, a peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.
His heavy investment of personal time -- at least 50 hours a week -- plus his good fortune in snagging a sweet deal on a Web site, enable Calories Per Hour to remain free of charge to users.
That easy, no-cost access is important to Christensen, who knows the joy of losing -- and the despair of regaining -- the same 20 pounds again and again. "I wanted this to be as brief, simple and non-scary as it can be," says the veteran dieter and one-time member of Overeaters Anonymous.
But the site also offers this caveat: "The results of our calculators are only estimates, and we do not guarantee the accuracy of either our calculators or our data. We suggest that you consult with a health professional before altering your eating or exercise habits."
Christensen's efforts have earned him offers to buy the site and a position as a Web site reviewer for Tufts University, which evaluates Internet information on nutrition and exercise. But he's proudest of the e-mails that he receives from grateful users. "One guy wrote to me and said that the tools were just right on," Christensen said. "I never expected that."
Since the Web site's debut in 2000, Calories Per Hour has added nutrition tutorials and tools to calculate calories eaten. "The food calculator gets as much business or more as the calories-burned calculator," he said.
A bonus for site visitors: an occasional dash of dry humor. How many calories are burned attending a family reunion? About 102 calories per hour for a 150-pound person -- provided there's no fighting. What does swimming get you? A vigorous crawl burns 748 calories per hour -- except during a shark attack. In that case, Christensen notes, "Why bother [counting]?"
Here's what else you'll find:
No math required. Just plug in height, weight, age and sex to quickly find out how many calories you burn doing everything from accordion playing (about 122 calories per hour for a 150-pound person) belly dancing (306 per hour) and ushering at church (136) to sheep shearing (408) , windsurfing (204) and yard work (340).
Safe and steady. A calculator figures out a safe rate of weight loss for those who want to trim pounds and shows you how many weeks it will take to achieve your goal.
Mundane to the exotic. How many calories are in that root beer float? How about that sushi? The food calories and nutrition calculator reveals that and more, including net carbs and ingredients for favorite home recipes.
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