Physical Activity Level (PAL) Guidelines

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Physical Activity Level (PAL) Guidelines


Why is it important to understand physical activity? How can it affect my body weight?

Exercise frequency, intensity and workout length or duration all contribute to the number of calories you burn through physical activity weekly. When calculating your calorie requirements, you must go one-step beyond determining your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Also known as Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), this is the energy required (in calories) to fuel basic bodily functions and sustain life. Calculating your BMR using either the Harris-Benedict or Mifflin-St. Jeor equations is the first step.

Choosing the wrong physical activity level/factor (PAL) may result in an under- or over-estimation of your daily calorie needs, resulting is undesired weight loss or weight gain. Physical activity is the most variable factor and the second largest determinant of your calorie needs. Most Americans over-estimate their level of physical activity. According to an article published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care in September 2006, obese and normal-weight but sedentary individuals are the most likely to overestimate their physical activity levels when compared to those who are regularly active.

What is a physical activity level (PAL)?

Your physical activity level, also known as your Thermic Effect of Exercise (TEE) is accounted for in the form of a number between 1.2 and 1.9, by which you multiply your BMR. There are five activity ‘levels,’ ranging from sedentary to athletic. These factors are based most often upon the rigor of your lifestyle and exercise routine. Older publications/sources, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), suggested choosing from three activity levels: sedentary to active (1.4 to 1.69), active to moderately active (1.7 to 1.99) and vigorous or vigorously active (2.0 to 2.4). Having more choices and a deeper explanation of each level helps you to more accurately estimate your energy needs.

After choosing the most appropriate PAL, you can complete the Harris-Benedict or Mifflin-St. Jeor formulas. The resulting number will be a very good estimation of the amount of calories you need to consume, daily, to maintain weight.

Is the physical activity level I choose based solely on exercise or does lifestyle/occupation factor in also?

In a word: both. For simplicity, start by referring to the following table, which includes just the basics. Read the full descriptions for additional information.

Activity Level Description Activity Factor
Sedentary Little or no exercise/desk job 1.2
Lightly Active Light exercise/sports 1 – 3 days per week 1.375
Moderately Active Moderate exercise/sports 3 – 5 days per week 1.55
Very Active Hard exercise/sports 3 – 5 days per week 1.725
Extremely Active/Athletic* Hard exercise/sports daily and/or a physical job 1.9

*Competitive athletes may have a PAL of 2.0 or greater.


Person may be under the care of someone else. The activity factor accounts for BMR plus minimal activities, such as reading, working on a computer, watching television, playing cards, etc.

Lightly Active

This level is appropriate for most students, professionals and office workers (lawyers, doctors, teachers, laboratory employees, shop workers, many housewives/husbands and professional musicians). Of the 16 hours spent sitting/standing daily, three of these hours are spent in light activity such as walking or doing laundry. At least one hour, two to three times per week, is devoted to moderately intense exercise, such as dancing or low-impact aerobics.

Moderately Active

This level applies to those that work in more active occupations such as electricians, carpenters and those in the building trade (excluding heavy laborers), many farm workers, soldiers not in active service, commercial fishermen and housewives/husbands without mechanical appliances. Those with a more sedentary occupation would have to average 1.5 to 2 hours of exercise daily, such as jogging five to six miles, to be considered ‘moderately active.’

Very Active

This activity level is appropriate for part-time athletes, unskilled laborers, some agricultural workers, forestry, steel and mine workers, solders in active service, and/or those in a sedentary occupation that perform moderate-intensity exercise daily, comparable to running nine to 13 miles.

Extremely Active

This PAL is reserved for professional athletes or those employed in physically demanding jobs, such as lumberjacks, blacksmiths, female construction workers and coal miners. It may be appropriate for those in a more sedentary occupation that engage in a high level of physical activity or the equivalent of running 14 to 17 miles per day.


  1. Physical activity, cardio respiratory fitness, and adiposity: contributions to disease risk. MJ LaMonte and SN Blair. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care; Sept 2006.


2 thoughts on “Physical Activity Level (PAL) Guidelines”

  • It depends on how hard you exercise. Zumba and other home DVD workouts are usually not very intense. I’d say you fall into lightly active category.

  • hello,

    I’ve calculated by BMR and now understand what it’s for.

    Just confused on how to calculate my Total Daily Energy Expenditure. I think I’m between lightly active/moderately active. Can you please help me with this?

    I work a normal 8 hour job a day as an admin. I get home at 5 and do physical activity like work out home DVD, Zumba plus treadmill on top of that. I burn at least 350-600 calories per day (one hour a day) 5-6 days a week.

    Which one is my PAL..?

    Many Thanks. 🙂

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