Olympic Calories for Michael Phelps and Everyone Else
The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Olympic Calories for Michael Phelps and Everyone Else

I didn't intend to cover this topic until several reporters deluged me in one week. They said I must answer immediately because they had deadlines, gave specifics I must answer so they can be paid for their article (while I supply everything with no remuneration), hours I must contact them at my expense, perhaps without them knowing my time zone placing it in the middle of the night, and so on.

Two reporters seemed to want the usual myths, not corrections or understanding. In numerous interviews, I earnestly debunked urban legends and explained facts, then found their article quoting my name wasn't anything I said. With apologies to readers waiting patiently for earlier topics, here are some of the questions:

  1. The reporters wanted a comment that it was uncommon or abnormal that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps eats up to 10,000 calories a day when training. It is not a mystery. If athletes train hard over many miles, they need more calories.

  2. It is not unusual to eat large quantities of food and calories, athlete or not. Eating a great deal is nearly customary in the West, certainly in the US. Many people eat many thousands of calories a day more than they burn, and so, gain weight. The only trick seems to be to get people to stop eating that much.

  3. The reporters asked what special techniques are needed to get that many calories. None. Look around restaurants and grocery lines. A typical fast food entrée, with French fries and milkshake can total 5000 calories in only one meal. A "salad-bar" with dressings, sauces, and usual Western choices can start at 1000-2000 calories a plate full and go upward from there. A bag of crisps, chips, or nuts can total 1000 calories in one snack. Exercisers and dieters lulled by slick advertising add hundreds of calories with sports shakes and bars. Ordinary people can eat thousands of calories per meal that they really don't know about, plus snacks. It is not a math mystery that they eat thousands of calories per day, and have extra body weight, regardless of other personal factors.

  4. Another question was what made Phelps burn such an unusual number. It is not unusual for a swimmer or other endurance athlete to burn thousands of calories. When I trained swimming for various competitions I ate between eight and ten thousand calories a day myself, swimming five to seven miles a day. I posted about the mileage in Last October in Fast Fitness - Healthier Sports Shake.

  5. Two reporters asked me to confirm an item from a National Public Radio interview, that once Phelps (or anyone) stops exercise, the body stops feeling hungry, therefore, someone not exercising will eat less. Clearly, this isn't so. People can eat too much regardless of exercise. You are not a cause-and-effect automaton. Food choices and overeating habits can occur separately from exercise habits. Days I didn't swim twice a day, miles at a time, I had to remind myself not to eat the same as when training. Now that I don't train like that, I can't eat like that. It is not increased age but that I do less. No mystery.

  6. No it is not hard for most Westerners to eat - they just buy the food. No special eating techniques are needed. Overeating and eating when not hungry are common. One cup of nuts is about 800 calories. I can stuff about half a cup in a brimming handful. My husband Paul, a hard working carpenter who is taller and more muscular than Phelps, but about as lanky, fits almost a cup in his giant hand. We may scoop a handful while commuting on bike to work. Other people may eat handful after handful while watching television, totaling many thousands of extra calories a week.

  7. It is not true that Phelps is "pure muscle" and no one is. Hopefully they have bones, and brains, and lungs, and some skin and so on.

  8. It is not true that only muscle burns calories, or gender is the deciding factor. All your cells that are alive need to breathe and eat in various amounts, male or female. That is why a fat person, male or female, uses more calories everyday to feed all the extra. A fatter person may need more calories to stay at that higher weight than a smaller muscular person, male or female. Weight loss occurs when they do not eat enough to feed it all. Add a small amount of exercise over the day to do functional daily movement. See the lifestyle links at the end for more.

  9. Resting metabolic rate is not mysterious, or fixed by gender or age. A car in idle uses gas, and people also burn calories even at rest with no exercise. Just like different size cars get different mileage, so do we. Adding suitcases in a car trunk needs more gas to tote them around, even though suitcases are not motive parts. A small to average adult may burn about 75 calories an hour, depending on size, to fuel all the cells to stay alive. Over 24 hours that is about 1800 calories a day. A smaller person may need less. A larger person may need 100 an hour or 2400 a day. When you exercise you use more.

There were more questions, taking me days to write. Until then, click these:


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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.