To lose weight, the first thing most of us do is go straight into a new exercise regimen. Giving it everything, getting up at 6 am to go for 5-mile runs. Though the intention is great. It’s very common for people not to get the results, they wanted. What if there was a simpler way? This is where this magic tool comes into play called NEAT. Calories burned through NEAT on average far exceed the calories burned through exercise.
If there was one thing, I wish I knew about 10 years ago, this would have been it. This would have changed the game on my fitness journey and saved me years and money, pissing about.
NEAT stands for ‘Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis’. This is all the movement you do throughout the day, which is not a planned exercise session. It’s the simplest form of physical activity, considering the number of calories burned can be vast. Best of all, it doesn’t require any equipment or specialised membership.
This is something, which needs to be spoken about more. Most of us don’t want to go running. Therefore, if there’s a way we can increase our activity, without strenuous effort, we’d all be on board. Exercise alone is a poor method to lose weight. (1)
In this article, we’ll explore, what is NEAT, the evidence for its effectiveness and ways to increase your rate of NEAT.
What is NEAT?
N.E.A.T (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is all the movement you do in the day, which isn’t intentional exercise.
This accounts for various actions. Holding your posture, walking to the bathroom, fidgeting or tapping your knee. (2) If you’re moving and it’s not exercise, it’s NEAT.
2 people of similar height, age and weight, can have a difference of 2000 calories a day burnt. This is in NEAT alone. (5)
For instance, a postman will have a high rate of NEAT, because they are on their feet posting letters. Whereas an office worker will have a low rate of NEAT, as they sit most of the day.
Why is NEAT more effective for burning calories?
When it comes to weight loss. Burning calories through exercise shouldn’t be the goal. Creating a reduction in calorie intake through diet should be. Most people are looking to add more fuel to their vehicle when they have a flat tyre. But, if you want to burn extra calories through movement, you might as well do it the most efficient way.
Here’s a brief outline, why NEAT is more effective for burning calories than cardio:
- A greater length of time
- Cardio can decrease daily calorie burn
- Easier to sustain
A greater length of time
How long is the average cardio session? Such as run or cycle on the exercise bike. About half an hour to an hour. If you do that 5 days a week. So we have 5, 30-minute cardio sessions per week. The average 185-pound person burns 288 calories, on a half-hour 5mph run. That done over 5 days per week is 1440 calories per week.
The average 185-pound person burns 288 calories, on a half-hour 5mph run
over 5 days per week is 1440 calories per week
A pound of fat is 3500 calories
Running 5 days per week (30 minutes) burns 0.4 pounds per week
To lose a pound of fat requires you to be in a deficit of 3500 calories. Therefore, if you run 5 times per week for half an hour, you’d burn less than half a pound per week. For losing weight, that is a very poor time economy. hence why I don’t recommend cardio for weight loss. I only recommend cardio for heart health and general fitness. It’s far easier to eat 500 calories less per day and over a week, which creates a deficit of 3500 calories, which is on a pound.
Most of us have 16 hours a day, when awake. This provides us with so much untapped calorie-burning potential. Utilising those 16 hours will have a greater burn on your daily energy balance, compared to half an hour every other day. You’ll burn more calories per day, consistently.
Imagine in the morning before work, instead of watching TV, you put in a podcast and went for a half an hour walk. And if you did the same before bed each night. That over a week would burn your body more calories, compared to the odd run here and there.
Imagine the difference getting off a few stops early on public transport would make. Or a daily walk in your lunch break instead of sitting around.
Doing intense exercise for one hour a day is tough. Most people quit their exercise routine. But increasing your movement for 16 hours of the day is easy. But please, stop focusing on the calories you burn in one exercise session, it’s meaningless. You need to account for all the calories you burn in the whole day.
Cardio can decrease daily calorie burn
A big mistake people do with cardio is; go for a run, then sit around for the rest of the day. The problem is, you may burn 250 calories that run. But if you now don’t do any movement after that, you may miss out on another 500 you could have burned, from moving around.
There’s evidence suggesting that people who do cardio, actually burn fewer calories in the day. This is due to having lower activity for the rest of the day. It’s believed it might be a subconscious behaviour alteration. (3) This is what a call the compensatory effect.
This means if you do cardio, then sit down for the rest of the day. You would be worse off than someone who did no cardio. But going on a few dog walks did some cooking and spent their day on their feet at work. Not only is that more pleasant than running, but it’s also something you’re more likely to adhere to.
Easier to sustain
I know I’m a personal trainer and this might shock you, but I hate cardio. For 99.9% of us normal regular people, cardio kinda sucks. It’s boring, painful, makes you sweaty and all you just want to finish as soon as possible.
Now how many times have you heard someone say:
“Oh my god, I wish I didn’t go for that walk.”
“Damn I regret fidgeting so much”.
Yeah I haven’t heard anyone regret them either.
With NEAT not only are you burning more calories overall. You can kill 2 birds with one stone. It’s a great opportunity to do something else. That can be something social, listening to a podcast or audiobook or taking a phone call.
But if you make it a daily habit to get in some gentle movement, such as hitting a certain number of steps. I am nearly certain you’ll still be doing it years later. As for running miles every day, I have my reservations.
Does NEAT burn a lot of calories?
As mentioned earlier, 2 people, of the exact same age, sex and weight can have a difference in calorie burn of 2000 a day. Based on the difference in NEAT.
This is one out of many reasons, obesity is increasing throughout the world. Most people have desk-bound jobs in front of computer screens. Before a lot more jobs were manual.
Take postmen for example. What are they doing all day? They’re not doing intense cardio, they are walking door to door, posting letters. Then you compare that to bus drivers, for example, who are seated most of the day.
I’m not saying it’s only a lack of NEAT. But small daily movements can make a great difference in the number of calories burnt per day. What this is showing, it’s not one piece of exercise that matters, but the accumulation of all your daily activities which matter.
Instead of focusing on one piece of exercise. Look at the accumulation of all your daily activities and see where you can include more.
Studies on NEAT
Here are few studies showing how effective NEAT can be on individuals, with their calorie expenditure.
The studies outline are:
- Movement study
- Overfeeding study
A study was done on a group of people. Half the participants were lean and the other half obese. They all claimed to be couch potatoes, the lean participants believed they had ‘fast metabolisms’. That’s something I’ll get into later.
Anyway, they were closely analysed in special rooms for a certain number of days. They had their calorie burn, measured. In case you’re interested, they had to wear special underwear to measure their calories burnt.
Long story short, the leaner people burnt a lot more calories through NEAT than the obese people did. It’s suggested that leaner people may genetically be wired, to move more subconsciously. (5)
Most people blame metabolism. But in actuality, genetics wire certain people to move around more, without realising. Take, for instance, we all know that hyper or fidgety person. Though it may seem meaningless, these people are burning a lot more calories daily. All these small movements need energy and that energy has to come from calorie burn.
In this study, participants were also, split into obese and lean. But what different was, everyone was made to eat 1000 calories over their maintenance, each day. You’d think the leaner individuals would gain more weight. Heavier people have higher metabolic rates. (Yes, heavier people have faster metabolisms).
My calorie calculator will tell you how many calories per day you burn
The leaner people gained a lot less fat. What happened? Was it their metabolisms? Nope. The leaner people’s rate of NEAT increased a lot in response to more food, compared to the obese group. This was, most likely a subconscious way to burn off the extra calories. Which again is most likely a genetic component of leaner individuals. The obese people’s NEAT didn’t change in response to the overfeeding.
This shows that it isn’t a metabolism issue, but a genetic response to feeding and movement. (6)
For instance, I am pretty sure I’m one of those people with a genetic low rate of NEAT. Hence why I have to force myself to move about often. Otherwise, I’d lay on the sofa all day, eating ice cream, if left to my own devices.
Like many others, I blamed my metabolism for being obese. But now I can see other factors were in play.
How to increase calories burned through NEAT?
Instead of feeling like you must exercise, increasing activity can have greater effects. But, what are some practical ways to do so?
There are quite a lot of ways:
- Use a tracker and have a step goal (my favourite way) (It doesn’t need to be 10,000, just more than what you do already)
- Take the stairs more
- Fidget more
- Go for more walks
- Park further from your destination
- Walking breaks
- Walking meetings
- Get off on earlier stops, with public transport
- Pace around on phonecalls
- Do housework little and often
- Go buy food instead of ordering online
- Add in a morning and/or lunch and/or evening and/or night walk
- Walk up escalators
- When travelling go and explore, instead of laying on the beach all-day
- Do a job, which involves being on your feet
I hope you can see, you don’t need “exercise” to burn calories. You’d be far better off seeing how you can utilise the whole 16 hours you are awake to burn calories instead.
I hope this completely changes your outlook on exercise. Don’t get me wrong, if you still want to do cardio, it’s a bonus and is great for the heart, so please keep doing it. But this article wasn’t for you.
When it comes to fat loss, focusing on one piece of exercise is meaningless. What’s more important, is the accumulation of activity throughout the whole day. A short run doesn’t tell the whole story.
As I said, some people decrease their rates of NEAT when they do cardio, so burn fewer calories in the day. Exercise is not supposed to be used to burn calories. It’s not effective for weight loss. Exercise is used to get fitter and stronger and healthier.
If you want to burn more calories in a day, focus on small things that can compound over time, that doesn’t feel like work.
Focusing on cardio to burn fat, is only focusing on the tip of the iceberg. NEAT is the foundation you need to be focusing on first, this is where you’ll get your biggest win.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.