Every fitness fanatic, cardio bunny and health enthusiast probably knows that to lose fat you need a negative energy balance – even those who “diet” by slurping up peanut butter banana smoothies packing a whopping 600 calories a pop (well…they know it at heart).
Understanding the negative energy balance (a calorie deficit) is part of the ABC’s of fat loss.
Energy expenditure has to be greater than energy intake in order to lose weight. This diagram explains energy expenditure through the prism of the ‘weekend cheat meal’ and why it can stop you losing weight.
So, where energy expenditure is concerned, you can diet, reducing your calories to ensure you’re eating below your maintenance level.
You can also increase your energy expenditure, in effect bringing up your maintenance calories with increased activity, but not adding any additional food.
Often people rely on the latter to trim off excess blubber, because significantly reducing calories isn’t that fun. Not for you and most likely not for anyone around you.
So we get ourselves up on a Saturday morning bright and early and haul ourselves into the gym for a training session, or we sweat it out on the treadmill for a full excruciating hour. After the gym, we head home and slink back onto the couch.
Satisfied with our efforts, we whip out some kale salad, and spend the rest of the day in hibernation mode: curled up under a blanket watching Netflix. We expect to wake up to see the numbers going down on the scale the next morning, but we may very well not. We’re still missing one giant piece of the fat loss puzzle – non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
What’s so NEAT about Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis?
Activity thermogenesis can be broken up into two categories.
Exercise activity thermogenesis is energy expended from exercise that we intentionally engage in (anything you do at the gym, going on a brisk run, etc.). We focus on activity thermogenesis – calories burned while exercising – when attempting to lose weight.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do when we’re not sleeping or exercising (hence the “non-exercise”). Mowing the lawn, walking up a flight of stairs to get to the office, even the hour of fidgeting after a strong cup of black coffee in the morning are all great examples. They all burn calories, and more than we would expect.
Our jobs and careers tend to impact our levels of NEAT greatly. Occupational NEAT is the activity thermogenesis resulting from work. Nurses, waiters or waitresses, construction workers or personal trainers – anyone working in an occupation that requires you to be on your feet moving about or engaging in any physical activity – would have levels of NEAT enough to make the rest of us green with envy.
For the rest of us who spend Monday to Friday chained to our desks sending e-mails, our levels of NEAT are generally appalling. The difference in energy expenditure between active and sedentary jobs can run into hundreds and hundreds of calories.
There are certainly ways to increase NEAT even when working in a sedentary occupation. You can do so either by working in some NEAT throughout the work day or upping leisure NEAT, the thermogenesis resulting from how you spend your spare time. Unfortunately, most of us don’t try to do so. We consistently and completely overlook NEAT.
Why Should You Care About Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis?
You might think that going to the gym makes up for the 8-12 hours you spend sitting at your desk every day. You don’t have to take the stairs, or leave your house to pick up dinner rather than ordering in because you’ve already spent an hour on the treadmill.
You probably don’t realise that the calories burned with the accumulation of all of those small activities would significantly outdo the calories you burned on the treadmill.
According to Dr James Levine, the Mayo Clinic researcher who first described the phenomenon of NEAT, it can vary by up to 2,000 calories a day between two people of the same size.
That means that just by moving around and being on your feet – like we humans were designed to be – you could burn an additional 2,000 calories without even trying. And 2,000 is a hefty number.
For some of us, that’s well above our calorie allowance for a full day. It’s hard to believe, but simply moving around throughout the day can burn 2,000 calories, though your full hour of torture staring at the clock on the stationary bike burns only 300 to 400.
Consider someone who works in finance, completely deskbound. The only time they move throughout the day is shooting to the restroom for a quick bathroom break, returning to the familiar indentation in their office chair as quickly as possible: that could equate to just 300 calories of occupational NEAT per day. They return home after a long and stressful day of work and plop themselves in front of the TV for a few minutes of viewing before they doze off: around 30 calories of leisure NEAT.
Now think of someone who works in farming, spending hours on their feet doing physical labour: that could equate to 2,300 calories of occupational NEAT.
Or someone who works as a waiter, zipping between customers all day, carrying heavy plates back and forth: this could total as much as 1,400 calories of occupational NEAT.
They come home, and instead of lying motionless in front of a screen they delve into some home repair, or dabble in some gardening: this could add up to as much as 600 calories of leisure NEAT. The difference can be significant.
We Don’t Move Much Anymore
The truth is we don’t move much these days. Compare today’s generation to our parents or grandparents. We spend more and more time in environments that require prolonged sitting: in offices, in cars, on the couch… We spend our days shifting from one seat to another.
We’re in the age of ease and convenience, and we want everything at our fingertips.
The workplace is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to declining activity.
Shifts in the labour force and the nature of work have resulted in a dramatic decrease in physical activity during the workday. We’re no longer earning our wages by the sweat of our brows. On top of that, we’re working longer hours, spending even more time seated.
Minor manual tasks that used to be routine in sedentary occupations now require no physical effort due to computerization and mechanization. What were once considered sedentary jobs, are now even more so.
We don’t walk over to our colleagues to relay a message; we just shoot them an e-mail. We don’t have to manually punch holes; there are machines that do it for us. We can get through an entire workday expending hardly any energy.
Advances in transportation have also brought out the lazy in all of us. Walking has become almost obsolete. Why walk when an Uber can conveniently scoop you up and deliver you right to your destination?
Walking tours have been reduced to gaggles of people in ridiculous helmets awkwardly scooting about on Segways. Instead of skateboards, today’s kids take to their neighbourhood streets on hoverboards. Stairs are archaic. We’d rather wait 10 minutes for a busy elevator than walk up a few flights.
Society as a whole is engineered to require as little movement or effort as possible. When you want a quick bite, you can have your food delivered to your doorstep. Even fast food is now being delivered.
When you need new clothes, just scroll through an online retailer, no need to step foot in a store. Everything is online, and just a few clicks away. TVs, iPads and computers are our main source of entertainment. Recent surveys have found that on average we spend 12 hours sitting a day. Couple that with 7-8 hours of sleeping and you’re at 19-20 hours of hardly any movement.
How Inactivity Impacts Fat Loss
Our sedentary lifestyles are detrimental to our health. Sitting is the new smoking. Obesity was rare a century ago. Today, nearly one third of the world’s population is obese or overweight. And since our genetic constitution hasn’t undergone a complete overhaul, there must be other reasons we’re getting plumper and plumper.
Sure, the foods that we’re eating are causing the numbers on our scales to creep up. But the fact that we’re too lazy to even get in a car and drive to a fast food restaurant is certainly not helping.
You will struggle to out-exercise a sedentary lifestyle. No matter how many times a week you make it to the gym, it will not make up for being seated for the remainder of your waking hours.
Focusing solely on the energy you use while exercising is one of the biggest fat loss mistakes you can make. Exercise will never make up for the energy you could be using living an active lifestyle. If you want to effectively lose fat, you need to move. When you’re dieting, ensuring you’re active throughout the day becomes that much more important.
The Myth of a ‘Slow Metabolism’
Most of us have heard that when you significantly reduce your calories, your metabolism slows down. We’re warned not to diet too hard so our metabolisms aren’t ‘downregulated’, in effect, harming our progress.
But the truth is our metabolisms don’t downregulate when we cut our calories. Our bodies don’t recognise that we’re eating less and immediately catapult into “starvation mode”.
The reason that our progress may eventually slow when we reduce calories is NEAT. We tend to expend less energy when we’re getting less energy from food. It’s a natural behavioural response to dieting.
When we’re eating fewer calories, we tend to move less. Physiological studies have demonstrated that NEAT increases with overfeeding, and decreases with underfeeding. It’s not hard to spot someone who is knee deep in a dieting phase. You’ll find them seated, motionless, not a tap of a finger or swing of a foot.
When dieting we tend to move as little as possible, other than when we’re exercising. As a result, our fat loss slows down. If you want to keep up your progress, keep up your NEAT.
5 Ways to Increase NEAT
1. Take the stairs
This is by far the simplest way to expend more energy throughout the day, and the easiest to accomplish. Ditch the elevator. Of course, if you work on the 24th floor, no one expects you to crawl your way to your desk every morning. But if you have just a few flights, go the old fashioned way – by foot. Or take the elevator to the 20th floor and hike the last four. And certainly don’t be the asshole that takes the elevator to the second floor. Not only will you be doing yourself a disservice by being unnecessarily lazy, but also everyone else in the elevator will hate you.
2. Get a standing desk
We already know that our occupation is one of the reasons our NEAT is so low. If you spend the majority of your day at your desk, you might as well be standing. While the number of calories expended standing at your desk vs sitting is not massive, you’ll be much more likely to move around if you’re already on your feet rather than slouched in your office chair. You might take more trips to the water cooler and subsequently more trips to the bathroom. You may pop over to your co-worker to tell them something rather than e-mail them. In addition, you will be doing yourself a massive favour when it comes to your posture. Sitting for long stretches of time can cause both back and neck pain.
3. Break up your day
Break up your day with short walks or trips. Maybe walk a few blocks to the second nearest Starbucks instead of the one directly next to your building. Or just get up and go for a 10-15 minute stroll every few hours to get your legs working. Once you get into the habit of it, you’ll crave the movement. Sitting for hours on end will feel unnatural and uncomfortable.
4. Do your errands
Yes, the Internet has made our lives infinitely more convenient and saves us tons of time. But it can also make our lives too convenient.
If you need groceries, physically go to the actual store for some shopping. Stroll through the aisles; carry your groceries in from the car. This is old fashioned, I know, but there’s really no reason to constantly use online shopping delivery sites. If you want to order a book, make your way to your nearest bookshop and pick it up rather than ordering it. Simple chores keep you moving and can also bring simple pleasures.
5. Do your own chores
It’s easy to hire people to come in to take care of your chores and housework for you. Bring someone in to mow the lawn, or tend to your garden. Sitting is enticing, and manual labour is tough. But taking care of the things around your house that require physical effort is a great way to use energy.
There’s no need to become one of those people who walks in circles around their neighbourhood at 10 pm, waiting for their Fitbit to vibrate with a chime of approval when they reach 10,000 steps.
Those extra few steps aren’t going to make a difference to your waistline. What will make a difference is changing your thinking, and your way of life. Make serious changes to the active human being your biology intends you to be. Fat loss will never coincide with a couch-potato lifestyle.