Motion sensing briefs track calories spent

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The more complicated medical science becomes, the more it seems to revert to older, simpler truths. After years of contentious debate on diet and exercise, the cycle is returning to that basic unit of food energy, the calorie.

For decades the gurus of diet have told us calories don’t count. It’s fat, or carbs, or protein, when you eat them and in what combinations. Now, we’re told to count calories again, not what’s in the food we consume, but in the energy we expend by the hour.

Instead of a little chart that says a boiled egg has 70 calories, we can now consult a chart that lists activities to burn up those 70 calories so they don’t wind up as dreaded, and very unhealthy, belly fat.

This is the science of calorimetric measurement. And how do scientists measure this energy expenditure? Motion sensors in your underwear. Or more accurately, in the briefs and boxers of test subjects. Which raises certain questions of quality control. If two test subjects ride a bicycle for an hour, and one is totally bored and the other is, well, excited, would the result be the same? Do the sensors pick up energy from excitement and add it to that expended by pedaling to equal the calories in a half-pound of Godiva chocolate?

If the sensors are in one’s shorts, they may or may not pick up energy from as far away as the brain. Provocative thoughts or worries, add 20 calories. Transcendental meditation, subtract an equal amount.

Say, for example, that a 150-pound person-thin for a tall man, chubby for a short female, the chart makes no distinction-burns 68 calories an hour sitting on the couch watching “American Idol” and an equal 68 calories kneeling to pray, possibly to atone for lascivious thoughts while watching TV. Taking an hour nap burns almost as much, 61 calories. But does it matter what you’re dreaming? This may be more art than science.

Computer work is charted at 102 calories per hour, exactly the same as “active” sexual activity. Does this mean the computer user was on a porn site? And “office” work at a desk uses 122. So where do the extra 20 calories go? Knowing your boss can monitor your computer use? Incidentally, you could use up the same 122 calories playing the accordion. Sitting, standing or strolling not specified.

Olympic athletes are probably used to this sort of analysis. Bobsledding and luge appear to be equal at 476 calories per hour (the same as shoveling coal, which is not yet an Olympic sport). Of course, the sled runs last only minutes. And wouldn’t the prone position for luge use less energy than seated bobsledding, and is there any difference between two- and four-man sleds? And speaking of athletes, walking on crutches uses 340 calories, just 34 calories more than fast ballroom dancing and 13 more than tap dancing, neither of which are likely to put you on crutches.

If weight control is the goal here, there are other factors to consider. People who fidget, squirm, tap fingers and feet, burn up calories just sitting in a chair, while placid types only use energy at the rate of a hibernating bear.

A study done decades ago with absolutely no sensitive energy measuring devices, in underwear or elsewhere, tracked pairs of identical twins born in Ireland. One twin of each pair had moved to Boston and the other remained in Ireland. The twins living in Boston had all the modern conveniences, drove a car to a sedentary job but ate a low calorie diet. The ones living in Ireland rode a bicycle, cleaned house with a broom and scrub brush, and never saw an elevator. Those twins ate real butter, whole milk, red meat and lots of potatoes, and naturally, they weighed considerably less than their siblings in Boston and had much lower cholesterol levels.

So much for the genetic excuse for obesity and high cholesterol. And maybe even for differences in the amount of energy used in doing similar tasks, whether or not one fidgets.

As for measuring caloric output, I’ll leave that to scientists spending their grant money on sensitive underwear. I’ve pretty much figured out that if I keep doing the things I love to do almost every day, that will cancel out at least one Godiva chocolate bar.