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Why does lifestyle matter for fat loss? (NEAT)

Although I always stress the importance of nutrition (you can’t out-train a bad diet!), lifestyle factors are also important.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. Activities such as, walking to work, typing, cleaning, bathing, fidgeting or workplace activities.

These daily activities can increase metabolic rate, and it is the cumulative impact of lots of these activities, and the resultant exothermic actions, that determine an individual’s daily NEAT. It is, therefore, not surprising that NEAT explains a big chunk of an individual’s non-resting energy needs.

Let’s contrast two extremes:

Person A

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

A 5’ 1” customer service advisor or call centre worker 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 that the NEAT of the person in scenario A will be greater than that in scenario B.

It’s worth mentioning that I hear this occasionally,

“I’m very active. I never stop. But I’ve still put on three stone in the last five years!?”

The answer is always the same – if you weren’t as active it would probably have been five stone.

Remember, if you’re gaining weight, it’s because you are in a caloric surplus!

If you’re generating 1000 calories a day of NEAT + burning 1000 calories a day from exercise + a BMR of 1200. That’s a total of 3200 calories that you’re expending.

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!

Getting smart about NEAT

So, 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. 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 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 – i.e. 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 – NEAT!

But if you actually take half an hour out to go for a walk to increase your step count, then it could be argued that this then becomes exercise – not NEAT. It doesn’t matter, though, activity is activity, regardless of the column 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.

Lifestyle Hacks

  • 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 just 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!
  • 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!

So, it’s clear that there’s more to weight gain and weight loss than just exercise and nutrition. Nutrition will account for, probably, 80-90% of your success (simply because it’s incredibly easy to out-eat a few extra steps or playing with the kids for five minutes), but if you want to relieve the pressure on your nutrition a little, and increase your chances of success, not to mention completely transforming your lifestyle and health, paying attention to your NEAT is definitely a good idea!