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Reach PT: NEAT (Non-Activity Activity Thermogenesis)

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What Is Thermogenesis?

Thermogenesis is the process of heat production in organisms, including humans. Basic science tells us that the generation of heat requires energy. So if our body is generating heat, even in very small amounts (I’m not talking hot flushes, here) that we may not detect, then we are expending energy!

Depending on whether or not they are initiated through movement, thermogenic processes can be classified as one of the following:

Diet-Induced Thermogenesis (DIT). The foods we eat require energy to process. Some foods require more energy to process than others. You can read more about that in point 3 here.

Exercise-Associated Thermogenesis (EAT). For example, when we lift weights or run we generate heat, which requires energy (measured in calories), this energy comes from the food we eat or our stores (body fat, muscle tissue).

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). This is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. Such as, walking to work, typing, cleaning, bathing, fidgeting or scratching your bum.

In this article we will look specifically at Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).

What Is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)?

As we’ve discussed, even trivial physical activities such as taking a shower can increase metabolic rate, and it is the cumulative impact of lots of these activities and the resultant exothermic actions that culminate in an individual’s daily NEAT.

It is, therefore, not surprising that NEAT explains a vast majority of an individual’s non-resting energy needs. Let’s contrast two extremes:

Person A: 6’ 1” nurse, traffic warden or postman who is generally quite a fidgety person, who walks briskly rather than ambles through their day, and likes to crack on with getting the chores done, rather than flopping down on the sofa when they get home from work.

Person B: 5’ 1” customer service advisor who wears a headset and types very little, a person who monitors CCTV or an an accountant who works at a desk. They bring lunch to work and eat at their desk. When they get home they make a quick meal and watch TV until bedtime.

No specific exercise has been taken by any of these people but it’s clear to see that the NEAT of scenario A will be significantly greater than in scenario B.

It’s worth mentioning that we hear this from many clients, “I’m very active. I never stop. But I’ve still put on three stone in the last five years!?”

Our answer is always the same. If you are gaining weight it’s because you are in a caloric surplus! You might be generating 1000 calories a day of NEAT. You might be exercising and burning 1000 calories a day. You may also have a BMR (see below) of 1200. That’s a total of 3200 calories… for maintenance! If you’re eating 5500 calories a day then it doesn’t matter about the rest of it – you will gain weight! Even if you are only going over by 50 calories every day. Add those 50 calories together for 300 days a year over 25 years (375,00 SURPLUS calories) and you go from being a slim 20-year-old to a not so slim 45-year-old. That’s life!

NEAT and Fat Loss

We know that fat loss occurs when we are in a caloric deficit. That is, we are taking in fewer calories than we are using. We can calculate the total number of calories used per day (TDEE) in the following way:

BMR
+
Diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT)
+
Exercise-induced thermogenesis (EIT)
+
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)
=
TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure)

Again, let’s look at our hypothetical person A & B.

Person A has:

BMR of 1300 calories. BMR is the energy it takes to keep you alive. If you are at rest, lying down doing absolutely nothing this is what it takes to keep you functioning and alive. So BMR = 1300 calories.

DIT of 320 calories because they eat 600 calories protein / 800 calories carbs and 600 calories fats. This equates to 2000 calories. As discussed in our article on Specific Dynamic Action, The energy used in processing is as follows:

* Protein: 20 to 35% of the energy consumed
* Carbohydrates: 5 to 15% of the energy consumed
* Fats: 5 to 15 % of the energy consumed

If we go with P 30% C 10% and F 10%, we can see that just processing that food uses 180 + 80 + 60. So DIT = 320 calories.

EIT. They lift weights for an hour,
Which uses 100 calories and then run for half an hour, which uses 400 calories. So EIT = 400 calories.

NEAT. As we’ve already established, person A is a very active person outside of exercise and uses 450 calories per day at work and home. NEAT = 450 calories.

TDEE.
1300
320
400
450
= 2450 calories

Person B has:

BMR of 1000 calories.

DIT of 268 calories because they eat 160 calories protein / 1200 calories carbs and 1000 calories fats. Again, let’s go with P 30% C 10% and F 10%.

They will use 48 + 120 + 100 processing that food. DIT = 268 calories. So they are eating more food than person A, but the types of food they are eating means the calories used in processing it are fewer.

EIT. They don’t do any exercise. So EIT = 0 calories.

NEAT. Very little. NEAT = 125 calories.

TDEE.
1000
268
0
125
= 1393

So, you can see from that, why two people who, on the surface, may not seem very different, can have completely different experiences in terms of energy balance and weight loss / gain.

Person A
Energy expended: 2450
Energy taken in: 2000
Total: -450

Person B
Energy expended: 1393
Energy taken in: 2450
Total: +1057

Increasing NEAT

The first step to increasing NEAT is to be aware of it and make it a priority. Once you’ve done that you can then evaluate your daily life to see if your activity levels are where you want them to be.

Standing vs Sitting

I have a standing desk in my living room that I use for work. I also predominantly use my laptop standing up when I’m in the studio.

Many physios recommend “moving often” when working at a desk. So, not necessarily just standing or sitting, but transferring from one to another, if possible. It’s not great to be in one position for too long, so I move my laptop from a standing to a sitting position, or I use my phone and walk about for a bit, if possible.

I also prefer standing up to sitting, in general. I do this naturally as I’ve always been a bit of a fidget. I’m always the one you’ll find standing up chatting during a party, as opposed to sitting on the sofa.

Steps

Activity trackers can help to highlight how many steps per day you are doing. The general guidance is 10,000 as a MINIMUM, this is for the general population as opposed to working hard for fat loss.

There are two sides to daily step count. If you’re going to work and you take the stairs from the car park and take the stairs to the office then that’s just a different way to go about your daily business. But if you actually take half an hour out to go for a walk to up your steps the it could be argued that this then becomes exercise – not NEAT. It doesn’t matter, though, a calorie is a calorie, regardless of the common to which it’s allocated.

Hobbies & Activities

You could take up more active hobbies/activities instead of watching TV. For example, DIY, gardening, playing with the kids. One of my hobbies is the traditionally sedentary process of music production, which is usually done sitting down. I always do this at my standing desk, with regular walks to the kitchen to stretch my legs and the odd loll on the sofa to listen to a snippet of what I’ve made, and to change position.

Tips and Tricks

  • Get up and walk about when you’re on the phone. Make the phone ringing a signal to move! I even do it with texts!
  • Set a timer on your phone to move every 15 mins until you do it automatically, out of habit, without needing the timer.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have 2 bathrooms then use the one that’s on a different floor.
  • When the kettle is boiling in the morning or if you’re waiting for the microwave, don’t sit down. Get moving! You could take some time to walk round the room and practice mindfulness or being present in the moment by really noticing your environment in detail. On the other hand, you could just walk round in a daze thinking. “I’d rather still be in bed”! Doesn’t matter – just get moving!
  • Always take the stairs instead of the lift where safe and possible.
  • Drink water. Not only is it good for you (1.2 litres per day RDA) it will mean you need to wee more so you’ll have to walk to the toilet!

(N.B. I switched from my laptop to my phone when looking up that info, so I could move from standing at my “desk” at the studio to have a little walk – better for my back and legs, better for my activity levels!)

Summary

It’s clear that there is more to weight gain and weight loss done exercise and nutrition. Although nutrition will account for, probably, 80% of your success (simply because it’s incredibly easy to out eat a few extra steps or playing with the kids for five minutes) if you want to relieve the pressure on your nutrition a little bit and increase your chances of success, not to mention completely transforming your lifestyle, paying attention to your NEAT is definitely a good idea!