It can be a secret weapon for those with weight loss goals, but for many people the answer to the question, “what is non-exercise activity thermogenesis?” is as much of a mystery as whether there’s life on Mars.
Often acronymized as NEAT, this invaluable health tool is far simpler than its name suggests. In layman’s terms, it refers to calories burned during everyday activities rather than formal exercise (also known as exercise activity thermogenesis or EAT). For example, the energy you expend during a walk to work, cleaning the house or even fidgeting while you sit down all fall under the NEAT umbrella. If you invest in one of the best fitness trackers (opens in new tab), you’ll be surprised to find how quickly all this activity adds up!
And, while many people pursuing health goals place greater emphasis on their time spent in the gym, laced into their trainers or racking up the miles on the best treadmills (opens in new tab), the contribution of NEAT to a balanced lifestyle should not be undervalued.
A study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine (opens in new tab) in 2007 highlighted the important role it can play in achieving a healthy body composition. “Data supports the central hypothesis that NEAT is pivotal in the regulation of human energy expenditure and body weight regulation, and that NEAT is important for understanding the cause and effective treatment for obesity,” states James Levine, the Director of the Rare Disease Institute at Fondation Ipsen and author of the study.
Meanwhile, a study by the Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab) describes how “by avoiding sitting, promoting motion, and engaging in simple, repetitive, and creative activities, a significant amount of extra calories may be expended that can reduce weight and perhaps prevent the cardiovascular and metabolic complications associated with obesity”.
What is NEAT?
While we’ve already provided a brief overview of what NEAT is, we asked Foodspring (opens in new tab) nutritionist and founder of pH Nutrition Liam Holmes for his definition of the concept.
“It is the energy expended for everything we do outside of exercise,” Holmes says. “Pretty much anything that creates (calorie) burn can be classed as NEAT. It ranges from walking around the house to walking the dog, gardening, playing with your kids, doing general chores and even fidgeting.”
How many calories does NEAT burn?
The number of calories burned through NEAT will vary enormously depending on an individual’s situational factors. For example, someone’s job will have a huge impact on their total daily energy expenditure; a laborer who is on their feet carrying out physically demanding tasks will expend far more energy than an office worker who remains seated for the majority of the working day.
“The number of calories burned can vary widely depending on the individual’s job,” Holmes says. He references figures from an article published in Best Practice and Research Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (opens in new tab), saying: ““This is one of the key determinants as someone who is desk bound will average around 400-500kcal (each day) compared to a builder or farm worker who can burn up to 2000kcal.”
Through this, he says, NEAT is often responsible for burning more calories than formal exercise or EAT - although your energy expended through EAT varies depending on the type and duration of exercise you are doing.
“The amount of energy burned during exercise has numerous variables such as how much effort you are putting in, your skill level and the type of training,” Holmes says. “If you cycled for an hour and just plodded along, compared to someone who was pushing really hard, the calories burned could range from 400-1200kcal.”
For the most part though, it is only athletes participating in “long duration endurance exercise or very high intensity training multiple times a day” who will burn more calories through EAT than NEAT each day.
How important is NEAT for weight loss?
Holmes says NEAT is an “essential tool” for those working towards body recomposition goals, such as weight loss. This is because, while all but the elite athletes among us will have a limited time each day to work out, there are many things we can do outside the gym to burn calories.
“We have to remember there are two ways to create a calorie deficit,” Holmes says. “Decreasing energy in and increasing energy out.” In other words, consuming fewer calories through food and burning more calories through increased daily activity levels (EAT and NEAT).
“Increasing your NEAT and factoring it into your day is a great way to create a calorie deficit without having to reduce your intake even further. It is also a far less stressful way of increasing energy output than adding more exercise into your routine. Research has shown those who maintain a higher NEAT are able to maintain their target weight more successfully than those who have a lower NEAT.”
A study published in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry (opens in new tab) in 2018 reinforces this point. It states: “NEAT is a highly variable component of daily TEE (daily total energy expenditure) and a low level of NEAT is associated with obesity. NEAT enhances lifestyle, and variations in individual and environmental factors can significantly affect daily energy expenditure.”
How to increase your NEAT
Considering the multitude of health benefits that NEAT has to offer, Holmes’ overriding piece of advice for those looking to increase their non-exercise activity thermogenesis is disarmingly simple: “Get moving!”.
You can make substitutions in your everyday life, such as walking or cycling rather than driving, or taking the stairs rather than jumping in a lift, to increase your total daily energy expenditure. Another option is investing in a standing desk, or one of the best walking treadmills (opens in new tab), so you can walk as you work.
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