We All Know We Need to Exercise.
If we want to see health benefits, Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that we get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Or, 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise a week. If you’re getting those minutes, that’s great! Take a second to pat yourself on the back because you’re performing above and beyond the other 80% of the population who are not getting enough physical activity.
NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis For Fat Loss
But what are our bodies doing in those other minutes each week? Does your job require that you sit at a computer all day and barely move a muscle except to use the bathroom and eat? Or, are you lucky enough to have a job that requires that you be moving and active throughout the day?
Sadly, in this day and age, we are more likely to work at the first kind of job. The technological advancements that add greater ease and convenience to our lives are at the same time making us fat and unhealthy. And outside of work, we face the same barriers to physical activity. Our entertainment, the way we get from point A to B, our education system, even our household chores: everything that we do has been organized and designed to maximize convenience and minimize effort.
So, where does NEAT come in? Our non-exercise activity thermogenesis is the amount of energy that we expend throughout the day when we are not exercising, sleeping, or eating. How you spend the bulk of your waking hours (and for many people, this is time at work or school), along with your sex, weight, and body composition (your fat to muscle ratio), and even the amount of time we spend fidgeting, all determine your NEAT; these factors oftentimes mean the critical difference when it comes to a maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding such health issues as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. One expert even referred to NEAT as the “crouching tiger hidden dragon” of societal weight gain.
But, you say, I can’t just quit my job! What is frightening is that most people in Canada work in jobs that, in the long-term, are bad for health. It might seem trivial, but it was the knowledge that I would be able to move that served as maybe the number one factor that motivated me towards a career in personal training. I knew from my many years spent in academia that sitting on my butt all day would only make me unhappy and unhealthy. And I know I’m not the only one!
So, what can you do to improve your NEAT–without abandoning your job to pursue a career as a fitness professional? (Always an option!)
Someone has probably told you to get as much movement throughout the day as possible. Take the stairs! Go for a walk at lunch! Well, if you’re waiting for me to refute this, you’re going to be waiting for forever! Science has been backing this advice for a long time now. So, if your job requires you to sit still all day, try biking or walking to work–or at least to the next bus stop! Take a couple laps around the office. When I was in grad school, all of my classes were three hours long and I would take “bathroom breaks” just so I could get out of my seat and walk around in the hallways (sorry, not sorry, to all the profs whose classes I disrupted). If you spend much of your day studying or watching Netlfix, take breaks every 40 minutes to do some squats or push-ups. Even just maintaining good posture, changing positions, and fidgeting have all been shown to make a difference when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. Some experts also recommend incorporating 35 “micromotion” periods per day–by spending five seconds walking and stretching several times per hour, you can reverse many of the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle–including fat gain!
What else can you do to improve your NEAT and daily caloric burn? Maximize your time in the gym!
Training for NEAT
But, you say, you told us that NEAT happens during the time we’re not exercising. Yes, that is true–but what we do when we work out absolutely will make a difference for our bodies, even while we’re not at the gym.
And since you’re such a diligent reader, you would also have noticed that I mentioned the significance of body composition upon our NEAT. Males, on average, have a higher NEAT (burn more calories) than females throughout the day–a fact of which you are likely aware. Studies have shown that men and women (in Canada, anyways) largely get the same amount of physical activity throughout the day, so the discrepancy in calorie burn is at least partly due to body size and composition. Men generally have more muscle and less fat than women–I suspect I’m surprising absolutely no one with this statement. Muscle cells possess a higher metabolic rate than fat (6-10 calories per pound of muscle, as compared to fat cells’ 2-4 calories). So, greater lean mass will mean a higher caloric burn throughout the day.
Perhaps even more essential for an optimal NEAT is the “afterburn” phenomenon, or what scientific and fitness communities refer to as EPOC; if you are unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. Basically, the type and intensity of the exercise you get plays an absolutely essential role in the amount of calories your body is burning throughout the day.
So, if your goal is fat loss, how should you be exercising to amplify your daily caloric burn, or NEAT?
Answer: with maximum intensity.
By and large, experts have concluded that in order to experience maximum EPOC–with greater magnitude and duration–exercise bouts should be intense–though not necessarily of longer duration. One study comparing low-intensity short duration exercise, high-intensity short duration exercise, and low intensity long duration exercise found that, overall, the high intensity short duration produced a significantly greater net caloric burn.
And which is better when it comes to EPOC and NEAT: cardiovascular exercise or weight training? It seems that either can be effective in amplifying your NEAT–as long as you’re doing it with intensity.
In a study comparing two groups weight-training with equal work output, the group exercising at 85% of their 8-rep maximum experienced significantly higher EPOC duration and magnitude than the group performing at 45% of their 8-rep maximum. Another study done with cardio exercise demonstrated similar results; it found that in order to experience an EPOC phase extending beyond 2 hours, exercisers needed to work at greater than 50% of their maximum intensity.
Research has also found that, by and large, the better conditioned the exerciser, the more quickly they will phase out of EPOC and return to their baseline metabolic rate; so, if you are overweight and out-of-shape, a longer and more intense EPOC phase–and a greater NEAT for the rest of the day–may be your silver lining!
I would recommend high-intensity interval training or tabata style workouts for maximum NEAT; as a word of caution, however, this level of intensity may lead to burn-out if performed more than once or twice a week, especially if you are a beginner exerciser!
If you’re confused about what specific level of intensity you should be training at–or what a Tabata or HIIT protocol might look like–I would recommend hiring an experienced, elite personal trainer to help maximize your NEAT–and reach your fitness and fat loss goals!
Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimal health and fat loss!
Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, ACE-Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.
Bahr, R., & Sejersted, O. M. (1991). Effect of intensity of exercise on excess postexercise O2 consumption. Metabolism, 40(8), 836-841. doi:10.1016/0026-0495(91)90012-l
Borsheim, E., & Bahr, R. (2003). Effect of Exercise Intensity, Duration and Mode on Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption. Sports Medicine, 33(14), 1037-1060. doi:10.2165/00007256-200333140-00002
Burleson, M. A., Obryant, H. S., Stone, M. H., Collins, M. A., & Triplett-Mcbride, T. (1998). Effect of weight training exercise and treadmill exercise on post-exercise oxygen consumption. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30(4), 518-522. doi:10.1097/00005768-199804000-00008
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