When you think of calorie expenditure to aid in body fat reduction, typically you think of someone sweating for hours on the treadmill or performing vigorous calisthenic exercises. Rarely do you think of the activities performed during daily life as aiding in calorie expenditure and fat loss. However, research suggests that Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (or NEAT, for short) is one of the biggest predictors of success in programs designed to reduce body fat.
NEAT is just a fancy way of describing all the calories you burn during your day from movement that is non-exercise in nature: walking the dog, cleaning the house, playing with your kids, taking the stairs at work, and many other forms of physical activity. In fact, there are an infinite number of activities that fall into this category, and NEAT is so important that the Surgeon General, along with leading health and exercise researchers, suggests that all Americans perform a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity every day to prevent disease and enhance well-being. The interactions between NEAT, structured exercise, and fat loss are just beginning to be understood, but it is clear even in the early stages of research that NEAT plays a prominent role.
As we have established numerous times before, losing body fat is all about creating a calorie deficit (where calorie expenditure exceeds calorie intake). Many people trying to lose body fat attempt to exercise to increase expenditure, and diet to reduce intake, and this combination of diet and exercise has been shown to be exponentially more effective than either factor by itself. Even with that knowledge, however, most people tend to focus more on the calorie expenditure side of the equation because it’s easier (dieting and nutrition represent a 24/7 proposition, whereas exercise is four to six hours per week for most people). This is where NEAT, and some interesting research, comes into play.
When most people either begin an exercise program, or increase the intensity of their current program, in an effort to lose body fat, researchers notice an interesting trend. Some individuals (without knowing it) reduce their NEAT to almost directly compensate for the amount of energy they expend during exercise. That is, if you expend 450 calories from exercise in a given day, you may reduce your NEAT by close to 450 calories per day, and in doing so, negate the calorie burning effect of exercise. Researchers cite soreness and fatigue for this near proportional reduction in NEAT, and further go on to state that it is one of the primary reasons some individuals don’t achieve their predicted rate of fat loss.
Not falling victim to this phenomenon can be a critically important aspect of your fat loss oriented exercise program. The first step to ensuring this doesn’t happen to you is to select and implement an exercise program that is appropriate for you.
So often, novice (and even experienced) exercisers are drawn to higher intensity exercise programs with the thought that, “The harder I work, the more I sweat, the more it hurts, the more effective it will be.” Rarely is this thought process true, however, particularly for mostly sedentary individuals just beginning to exercise. Higher intensity, militaristic training systems (P90x, Insanity, CrossFit) might be great for a small segment of population looking to get a butt-kickin’ from exercise, but rarely is this level of stress appropriate. In fact, certain hormonal changes, as well as the significant soreness, associated with this type of training can make it a perfect example of the type of training that reduces NEAT, and stunts or even impairs fat loss (not to mention the increased risk of a chronic overuse injury, which can eliminate exercise altogether).
Selecting a well-balanced, progressive exercise program that involves cardiovascular exercise and resistance training (even if at the same time, like circuit training) can be a critically important first step in ensuring you don’t sabotage your fat loss exercise program before it even starts. A directed or guided program administered by a fitness professional with a degree in Exercise Science and/or an advanced certification (from organizations such as the ACSM or the NSCA) is generally a good starting point. These individuals have training on proper exercise progressions, and, with this knowledge, can ensure your starting point and progressions are appropriate for you.
The other major aspect of maintaining a higher level of NEAT is to be conscious of it. Realizing this is a potential occurrence when starting, or increasing the intensity, of an exercise program is the first step to combating it. With that said – BE AS PHYSICALLY ACTIVE AS POSSIBLE! Since we know research shows NEAT will have the tendency to reduce when an exercise program is undertaken, make a concerted effort to do the opposite: increase your NEAT by taking the stairs rather than the elevator, parking farther away from the entrance to the mall, or walking on your lunch break instead of taking a nap. Do whatever you can to be MORE physically active than before you started your exercise program, and you won’t fall victim to this natural tendency to reduce NEAT.
The important take-home message is this: all activities (not just exercise) result in calorie burning and can aid in fat loss. Performing a higher level of lifestyle physical activity, and selecting an appropriate exercise program, can set you up for success on your fat loss journey. Failing to recognize these factors can set you up for failure.