Energy Balance: Ancient Ways the Body Deals with MSA Stress

I was an active kid who happened to really like biology and how we have evolved as humans. As I learned more about why the human body works the way it does, I became interested in human movement and the engine that powers it: the metabolism. Throughout the Master of Science in Analytics (MSA) program, I drew a parallel to how the body balances the amount of energy to expend or preserve daily and statistical modeling.

While it’s tempting to think of your body’s metabolic engine as a simple linear model, it behaves more like a complex “black box” model.

Your body’s metabolism does its best to model the ideal Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) to ensure physical survival and optimal mental functioning. Research has revealed four major components and their respective contribution to TDEE:

  • 70% Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  • 15% Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
  • 10% Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
  • 5% Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT)

Below are four focus areas that hit multiple “variables” of the model and the tools I use to ensure metabolic health during a stressful MSA program!


You spend 1/3 of your life sleeping, so definitely make the most of it! The biggest advances in sleep science have been body temperature regulation, blue light blocking before bed, and a multitude of apps and devices to help develop your sleep habit. See footnotes 1 and 2 for sleep gadgets and apps I’ve tried and will purchase on graduation. 

Good sleep helps ensure proper cortisol regulation in response to stress. Cortisol is a hormone that controls many of the body’s internal processes, including optimizing every component of the body’s metabolism. Though the nature of stress has drastically changed since our ancestral days, our bodies cannot differentiate between a busy graduate program and organizing a hunt. Make sure to rest up and prepare for another busy day!

Protein, Fiber, and Water (BMR, TEF)3

Walk into any grocery store and it can seem so difficult to pick the “right” foods given the overwhelming variety available. Thanks to the advances in our understanding of nutritional science, you can mostly avoid the $3.8 billion diet industry by focusing on getting enough protein, fiber, and water— instead of calories.

Before modern agriculture, non-animal foods contained a lot of fiber, which regulates how fast and thoroughly our digestive system processes food. Your body regulates food requirements indirectly through appetite, expecting a certain food mix. By replicating what your body’s metabolic “model” is expecting as input, you can trust your appetite as a friend instead of a foe! As a bonus, protein increases metabolism twice: during digestion and after being assembled into muscle mass.

Movement (BMR, NEAT)4

One of my favorite weeks during the MSA program so far was Communication Week, where we practiced presenting, speaking, and writing in a supportive yet challenging environment. I was made aware of my unconscious movements, which are surprisingly responsible for 15% of energy expenditure daily! While it would be great to have full awareness and control of every movement throughout your waking hours (like during a presentation), it’s not realistic nor practical. The best way is simply to keep track of steps and know your baseline.

Going back once again to our ancestors, they moved around a lot and may not have always had food readily available. Your body is well adapted against starvation by modulating unconscious activity levels, going as far as making it mentally more difficult to move! Although increasing your step count won’t directly ensure metabolic health, noticeable deviations from your baseline could be a sign that some things are amiss.

Exercise or Harder Movement (BMR, EAT)

There are a lot of mentions of the benefits of challenging exercise from my colleagues in Data Column, and I wholeheartedly agree with all of them. Exercise’s benefits go far beyond its 5% contribution to energy expenditure because it indirectly supports everything mentioned so far. It provides physiological stress for the body, giving purpose to protein and nutrients from food to build a stronger, more resilient body during sleep. It makes everyday movement easier as the body adapts to periodic bursts of more difficult movement. Finally, it can be just plain fun, whether you are competitive or social!

Exercise is one modern stress that I think has been a positive development since our ancestral days. You have the luxury to choose the time, place, and method of your hard work AND reap the benefits for all other aspects of your life!

Next time you feel your body is having trouble catching up to the demands of a stressful academic program, job, or period of life, monitor your four metabolic checkpoints and focus on finding a way to implement them. Remember, your body is a testament to human adaptability and will serve you well into your promising future!


  1. Sleep gadgets wishlist:
    Active mattress temperature regulators
    Oura Ring Wearable sleep tracker
  2. Calm app
  3. Glucose Revolution
  4. What you need to know about NEAT

Columnist: Andrew Lu