Before I cleaned up my diet, I viewed cardio and calories like a quota. But now I have this crazy idea in my head that maybe just living life can be more effective than such madness, if you set things up correctly. These days I’m in much better shape, with no gym in sight! Instead, I eat Paleo foods in a pattern which encourages fat burning, while simply viewing life as exercise. And guess what! It turns out the whole “life as exercise” thing has a name!
It’s called “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis,” with the adorable acronym of “NEAT.” NEAT refers to all the movement we do outside of conscious “exercise.” It’s the organic stuff like fidgeting, contracting muscles, and sitting up straight. As James A. Levine at the Mayo Clinic eloquently says, “NEAT includes all those activities that render us vibrant, unique, and independent beings, such as going to work, playing guitar, toe-tapping and dancing.”
Before delving into NEAT, let’s clarify the whole “calories burned in a day thing,” which is some complicated business. Your “daily metabolism” is determined by 3 basic factors. Add together the energy (or “calories”) required for these 3 things, and you’ve got your total calories burned for that day. (Although good luck figuring it out!)
1. Basal Metabolic Rate: Your BMR is the amount of energy required to sustain all vital organs at rest for a day. It’s the amount of “calories” required if you literally did nothing for an entire day, in a calm, temperate environment.
2. Thermic Effect of Food: This refers to the amount of energy (or “calories”) required to digest and process food. In general, it’s around 10% of calories consumed. (Technically 2-3% of fats, 6-8% of carbohydrates, and 25-30% of proteins.)
3. Physical Activity: This is everything you do physically. Surprise surprise! It includes the obvious volitional activity like sports and exercise, as well as the not so obvious yet beloved NEAT: the thermogenesis from the activities of daily life.
Why NEAT is SO NEAT
Studies estimate that two adults of similar body weight can vary in how much they “burn” in a day by 2,000 calories worth of NEAT. That’s 2,000 potential calories you didn’t even really realize you burned! (A 1986 study found that simple fidgeting could account for 100-800 calories burned per day.)
Let’s look at a 1999 Science trial on NEAT, shall we? 16 average weight patients (12 male and 4 female) ages 25-36, consumed 1,000 extra calories per day for 8 weeks, without consciously changing their physical activity habits. On average, half of the extra 1,000 calories resulted in fat storage, while, on average, half were seemingly “burned” through NEAT. Fat gain in the patients over the course of the trial varied. At the lowest end, one patient gained less than one pound over the 8 weeks of overfeeding. At the highest end, one patient gained over 9 pounds. (Both of these fly in the face of the whole calories theory, since “technically” all patients should have gained 16 pounds.)
The difference in calories burned each day was attributed mostly to NEAT (rather than BMR, food thermogensis, or volitional activity), accounting for approximately 2/3 of the increased energy burned. NEAT was the main factor in resistance to weight gain during overfeeding. The study showed an average increase of 336 calories burned from NEAT per day, ranging individually from 98 to 692 calories. As for the guy who burned the most through NEAT each day (692 calories), the study notes this fat-gain protection from NEAT was the equivalent of “strolling” (or such similar activity) for 1/4 of all waking hours. How delightful!
So what determines NEAT? It may be regulated by a central mechanism in the brain which ramps up NEAT during periods of over-eating, and suppresses it during periods of under-feeding. It also seems to vary genetically by person. Those with “naturally” good NEAT activation will be less likely to store fat than those with lower levels of NEAT activation.
For me, the takeaway is that NEAT shows counting calories and cardio is a nebulous path for weight loss. Sure you can try to gauge how much you think you ate or burned that day, but in the end, you just have no way of knowing. So perhaps it’s better to assume a dietary protocol and lifestyle which encourages fat burning, and then just live your magical wondrous life! Add a pep to your step! Sit up straight! Stand rather than sit! Fidget! Explore your world! Go to that party! Kiss the guy! Dance through Disneyland! Embrace your life! Just have fun already!