On most fitness and weight loss sites or magazines, you usually read about the importance of exercise. It is portrayed as the best way to increase the amount of calories that you burn through your day. However, there is a whole other range of activity that may also determine the difference between weight loss and weight gain: Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, known as NEAT for short.
In this post I’ll talk about the importance of Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, how it may affect weight loss, and what may increase or decrease it. I believe that this is one of the more overlooked topics regarding weight loss and you need to know more about it.
What is Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis?
The definition of NEAT was coined by Dr. James Levine, who’s been studying this area for many years. It stands for the amount of daily calories that you burn by any activity other than sleeping, eating (digesting food also requires calories), the basic functions of your body, and working out . It includes all sorts of activites such as strolling, working, solving a crossword puzzle, painting your wall, assembling your new dining room table, etc.
Basically, NEAT refers to how active our lifestyle is, without taking into account the time we dedicate to working out. This means that there is a great deal of variety of the NEAT levels of various people. Sometimes, this variety may even be counterintuitive.
For instance, let’s take a hypothetical lawyer into mind. This lawyer works sitting at a desk for 10 hours each working day. However, he does 3 workouts each week. His Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis will be very low because he spends most of his time sitting down. However, he is viewed as an active person. On the other hand, let’s look at a gardener who works outdoors every day but never exercises. His NEAT levels will be high but he may be viewed as an inactive person because he doesn’t train.
What this example shows us is that NEAT levels differ greatly between one person to the next and depend a great deal on our line of work. In addition, exercise is independent of NEAT to a large degree. What may also determine our NEAT levels are our hobbies, how we commute, and a variety of other factors.
NEAT is Like Lego Pieces
Painting your wall, shoveling your driveway, or rearranging your bookshelf don’t seem like activities which should be enough to change your weight or the circumference of your waistline. However, just like kids can sometime build incredibly big and elaborate constructions from small Lego pieces, so the small calorie burning contribution of each NEAT activity adds up. Each activity may not be as explosive as a 1,000 calorie workout but in total, and over time, it may even be more effective.
Just how much may NEAT contribute? In a study on the effects of NEAT on fat resistance and obesity, which examined how people reacted to overfeeding, Dr. Levine found that “Changes in NEAT accounted for the 10-fold differences in fat storage that occurred and directly predicted resistance to fat gain with overfeeding” .
In addition, he also claims that NEAT levels may change from one person to the next by up to 2,000 daily calories . In some diets you’re told to eat less than 2,000 calories in total each day and this entire amount can be burned with a high level of NEAT.
As you can imagine, the effect of more NEAT activities on the obesity epidemic can be tremendous. A shift from a sedentary lifestyle which so many of us are leading to a more active one can be a big factor in reducing obesity related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, and even dementia. The economic and social improvements can be astounding.
Just to give you a picture of how big the effect of Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis can be, fitness expert Tom Venuto, author of the Holy Grail Body Transformation program, recently claimed that NEAT Activities can amount to up to 50% of the total calorie expenditure of a person. This means that, if you’re active, half of all the calories you burn during the day may be used during NEAT activities.
What Influences NEAT
There’s no doubt that our occupation influences our NEAT levels. Office jobs tend to be sedentary and low in activity. Outdoor work requires more energy. Our habits also play a role. If you decide to walk out to lunch instead of ordering food to your office you will burn more calories. Whenever you walk and not drive NEAT increases.
Our hobbies also determine our NEAT levels. A person who likes to paint or do woodwork projects is more active than a person who enjoys reading or watching TV. Dancing is naturally a more calorie-expensive activity than going to the theater. Taking active breaks at work can also help.
Here are some activities to Increase NEAT:
- Take a course which lets you work with your hands such as painting, sculpting, flower arrangemet, etc.
- Play with your children more often.
- Don’t drive for short distances. Walk or use the bicycle, instead.
- Mow your lawn yourself.
- Do housework as soon as it’s needed.
What is curious is the way high intensity training may actually decrease Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. A study which examined the effect of exercise intensity on nonexercise activity thermogenesis found that NEAT decreased in the days following a high intensity workout . This may explain why some people complain that their workouts aren’t delivering results. They’re just too tired to be active in any other way after they finish exercising so they can’t create a big enough calorie deficit.
NEAT Is Hard To Control or Quantify
All this talk about Non Exercise Activities does not mean that you should stop working out. Don’t imagine that you’re burning enough calories just because you feel like an active person. NEAT is very hard to quantify and you will likely exaggerrate its effects. Most people have very low NEAT levels and so require exercising to avoid getting fatter. However, what you should take from this article is the need to be active throughout your day, not just in the gym. This is both healthy and good for your weight.
1. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, Volume 62, Issue 3. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis. James A. Levine.
2. James A. Levine, Norman L. Eberhardt, Michael D. Jensen. Role of Nonexercise ActivityThermogenesis in Resistance toFat Gain in Humans. 8 JANUARY 1999 VOL 283 SCIENCE.
3. James A. Levine; Mark W. Vander Weg; James O. Hill; Robert C. Klesges. Non-Exercise Activity ThermogenesisThe Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon of Societal Weight Gain. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. 2006;26:729.
4. Alahmadi MA, Hills AP, King NA, Byrne NM. Exercise intensity influences nonexercise activity thermogenesis in overweight and obese adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Apr;43(4):624-31.