Current obesity prevention strategies recommend increasing daily physical activity, assuming that increased activity will lead to corresponding increases in total energy expenditure and prevent or reverse energy imbalance and weight gain [1-3]. Such Additive total energy expenditure models are supported by exercise intervention and accelerometry studies reporting positive correlations between physical activity and total energy expenditure  but are challenged by ecological studies in humans and other species showing that more active populations do not have higher total energy expenditure [5-8]. Here we tested a Constrained total energy expenditure model, in which total energy expenditure increases with physical activity at low activity levels but plateaus at higher activity levels as the body adapts to maintain total energy expenditure within a narrow range. We compared total energy expenditure, measured using doubly labeled water, against physical activity, measured using accelerometry, for a large (n = 332) sample of adults living in five populations . After adjusting for body size and composition, total energy expenditure was positively correlated with physical activity, but the relationship was markedly stronger over the lower range of physical activity. For subjects in the upper range of physical activity, total energy expenditure plateaued, supporting a Constrained total energy expenditure model. Body fat percentage and activity intensity appear to modulate the metabolic response to physical activity. Models of energy balance employed in public health [1-3] should be revised to better reflect the constrained nature of total energy expenditure and the complex effects of physical activity on metabolic physiology.