The Importance of NEAT

April 02, 2021 6 min read

The Importance of NEAT

Many people with weight loss or fat loss goals often think of their training regime is the way to results, and while it is certainly a big piece of the puzzle, it's not the only piece that needs to be considered in terms of activity. There is a bigger piece that is often overlooked and missing for many people because we think our workout is enough, but it may surprise you that your workout is not as impactful as something known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). 

NEAT is basically all of the movement you do outside of your planned exercise. Examples of NEAT include activities such as standing, sleeping, breathing, cooking, cleaning, or shopping, and even small movements such as fidgeting or playing a musical instrument. While it might not seem like a lot, your NEAT can have quite a substantial impact on our metabolic rate and calorie expenditure. 

Many people will hit the gym hard 4-5 times a week, yet have lost sight of moving the rest of the day. We run, lift, cycle, or do higher intensity work, but then end up sitting the majority of the time working on the computer, zoom, driving in a car, etc. So while we are ‘active’ with our workouts, we are very inactive as a population. I’m guilty of this. I’m sure you have at some point been too. 

According to the study, The Role of Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis in Human Obesity with the rise of technological advancements, it’s not uncommon for a person to sit for more than half the day. (source) We also know that being sedentary puts us at greater risk for disease, obesity, and depression. Sitting is the new smoking as I like to say. It is sad that we have gotten to the point that most people don’t even walk over to our co-workers desk anymore, we just send an email. We take the elevator to the next floor. Park closest to the entrance at the grocery store. Order food to be delivered to our door. Take an Uber to drive us 2-3 miles rather than talking, simply because it is more convenient.  

However, as ancestral humans, we are designed to move - to walk, to carry, to lift, and be active. 

The more active we are, the better, especially when it comes to weight loss or fat loss goals!

If you’ve noticed you’ve hit a plateau, it might be time to evaluate your total daily energy expenditure and how much you’re moving outside of the gym as our non exercise activity is responsible for the majority of the calories we burn in a day when compared to just exercise alone. 

So let's break down our total daily energy expenditure and the things that impact our overall calorie burn:

  • Basal metabolic rate (BMR) - this is the amount of calories burned throughout the day just keeping your body functioning; heart pumping blood, breathing, digestion, immune function, brain function, etc.

  • Thermic effect of food (TEF) - the amount of energy (calories) required to digest, absorb and shuttle nutrients to be put to use in the body.

  • Total exercise activity (TEA) - yes, you can directly influence it, but you don’t burn as many calories as you think per session and it's not a direct 'in/out' equation with the calories burned. People usually think more is better with this, but that is not always the case as exercise creates a stress on the body, and if you’re in a calorie deficit already then adding in MORE exercise will only be creating more stress, so more is not always better.

  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) - this is where we have the most opportunity to burn more calories without inflicting more stress on the body. This is the lever we like to pull with clients in a fat loss phase because it can be very impactful with overall calorie burn and take your fat loss efforts to the next level. 

So How Many Calories Can I Burn Through NEAT?

NEAT calorie burn varies greatly from person to person. A 2014 study reported that the number of calories burned from NEAT vary by up to 2000 calories a day between two individuals of similar size. (source) It’s hard to believe, but simply moving around throughout the day can burn 2,000 calories, compared to your full hour of torture staring at the clock on the cardio machine only burns 300 to 400.

There are a number of factors that can account for this difference, including environment, gender, height, weight, genetics, your job and lifestyle can also influence NEAT.  Two people with similar body mass indexes (BMIs), but different jobs, desk job versus a physically active job, will burn different calorie amounts.  Additionally, there are other factors that significantly affect our daily energy needs, including age, body composition, thyroid hormone status, sympathetic nervous system activity, ambient and body temperature, disease states, and medications. (source

The two biggest impacts NEAT has is on our overall calorie burn in a day as well as our BMR. If you sit all day regardless if you workout or not, your BMR will be lower than if you incorporate more activity in your day. Additionally, if you lift weights and build muscle, your BMR will be higher as you'll have more active muscle mass compared to someone who is only doing cardio based workouts. We talked a bit about the metabolic response last week in our blog, Metabolic Adaptation to help you understand where and why the body slows down to protect itself when we are inflicting more stress from dieting.

Using NEAT to Improve Your Health

NEAT is thought to be one of the ways our bodies manage our weight. If we gain weight, NEAT tends to increase naturally as we move more subconsciously. This can be seen through more blinking, more fidgeting, and the natural desire to move more because we have more energy (calories). 

Conversely, when we lose weight, or are in an intentional fat loss phase, NEAT is also naturally reduced as we tend to expend less energy when we're getting less energy from food. We move and fidget less as we are in more of an energy conservation mode naturally.

Research also shows us that the benefits of NEAT go well beyond extra calories burned. (source) More non stressful movement also means less risk of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular events, and death from all causes. Plus, research shows that inactivity can negate the hard work you put into intentional exercise. (source)

So, how can we improve NEAT daily? Well, you can incorporate it more by finding easy ways that fit into your normal routine and lifestyle. It is not something that has to be a complete overhaul of your current activity. 

Here are a few ways you can incorporate more into your routine:

  • We have a famous saying “Park in the back” meaning park your car farther away from the entrance of stores or where you work.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Walk while taking work calls as much as you can. 
  • Get up more often when you’re at your desk.
  • Schedule in 10 min walks 2-3 times a day between work meetings around the office.
  • Create a standing desk instead of sitting all day.
  • If you have children, run around with them. Get them playing outside as much as possible!
  • Clean and cook while dancing to music. This is one of my favorite ways to get steps in, have fun and release a little stress!
  • Join a step challenge and aim to increase your steps by 2,000 each week working towards 10,000 steps per day or more! 
  • Also recommend taking a walk outside in nature any time you can.

It may feel hard at first, but I promise you it becomes second nature when you get into a routine and become aware of where you can add in more movement and steps outside of the gym. You will struggle to out-exercise a sedentary lifestyle just like you will struggle to out-exercise a bad diet. 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 the day. You owe it to yourself to have a long and healthy life!

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