Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to go to the gym?
If you could burn most of the energy you’d need every day just by… living? Well, there’s good news: It’s called NEAT, and it’s happening right now.
NEAT, or “non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” is the energy you burn doing everything except sleeping, eating, and working out.
When you run around frantically cleaning your house–that’s NEAT. When you opt for a walking meeting instead of sitting all afternoon– that’s NEAT. When you fidget your hands and tap your feet– that’s NEAT.
And, while those little parts of your day (the tap of a foot, the swing of a vacuum cleaner under the couch) don’t seem like a big deal for burning energy, they actually are. As you’ll see, NEAT can help you burn fat, lose weight, and reach your fitness goals! Isn’t that neat? (You knew that was coming.) Let’s take a look at how NEAT works and how you can harness it to plow through plateaus without hitting the gym.
Your NEAT is just one part of your total energy expenditure (TEE). Your TEE is all the energy you use to stay alive and move around each day. TEE is made up of 3 main components: basal metabolic rate or BMR (how many calories you’d burn if you just laid in bed), thermic effect of food or TEF (calories used to process food and convert it into energy), and physical activity.
NEAT falls into the last category, along with the energy used while working out (which is called “EAT”—seriously).
BMR accounts for about 60% of TEE, though it can be more for people who don’t move around much . TEF burns about 8-15% of our TEE, and depends on your digestion, absorption, and storage rates for the food you eat . The rest is left to NEAT and EAT. Studies show that NEAT accounts for 6-10% of TEE in sedentary people, and 50% or more in highly active people [4, 5].
So, not everyone burns the same number of calories doing everyday stuff. Even people who weigh the same amount and are the same size have varying levels of NEAT . Where and how you work, where you live, how much you exercise, and how many steps you take all play a major role in your NEAT levels.
If you’ve been hitting the gym regularly and watching what you eat, but still can’t seem to shed pounds, you might need to step up your NEAT.
Why Should You Care About NEAT?
Whether you’re in the 6-10% range or the 50%+, that’s a whole bunch of calories. Let’s put it this way–if you burn 2,000 calories per day, your NEAT accounts for anywhere between 120-1,000+ calories. That’s equivalent to a low-key elliptical session or a hardcore CrossFit workout followed by hot yoga.
Better yet, that’s a small cookie or an entire feast’s-worth of food burned without stepping foot in a gym. You can see why NEAT is so neat. So how do you reap the benefits?
Move Your Feet
You need to move more. Activities like taking the stairs or going for a light walk (at a chill 3 mph) can boost your energy expenditure 200-300% above resting levels . Skipping the elevator and scheduling “walking meetings” can help you blast through calories and burn fat without even breaking a sweat. Even little things like chewing gum and fidgeting in your seat increase your energy expenditure enough to make a difference .
Studies show you’ll get the most out of your fidgeting if you do so while standing up as opposed to sitting down . What exactly counts as “fidgeting?” Any arm, leg, foot, or hand movements such as tapping, swinging, or lifting will do.
The Un-NEAT City
Your environment plays a major role in your NEAT levels, too. People living in urban areas typically have lower NEAT than those living and working in rural areas . This is because living in a rural area involves more natural movement like walking for transportation, more jobs with physical labor such as farming, and less sitting.
Sitting less is a big deal. Overweight and obese people spend more time each day sedentary than leaner, healthier people. Some studies suggest obese people sit four hours or more a day than their fit counterparts . Moral of the story: sit less.
Step It Up
Weight loss is totally dependent on burning more calories than you take in. Since NEAT accounts for a whole bunch of calorie expenditure, making little changes to increase your daily non-exercise activity can make a big difference in your fat loss. Here are a few more ways to get the most out of your NEAT:
- Ditch the car. If you’re able to walk somewhere – do it! The more steps you take the more calories you’ll burn, and the more likely it is that you’ll lose weight and keep it off .
- Stand up. If you work a desk job, see if you can get a standing desk or an active workstation like this. When you’re watching TV or bingeing Netflix at home, stand up, stretch, or bounce around instead of lounging.
- Walk and talk. Next time you’re on the phone or have a 1-on-1 at work, put those walking shoes on and get moving. Not only will you increase your daily steps, but the blood flow to your brain will help you generate better ideas–aka, you’ll sound smarter to your boss!
- Schedule moving breaks. Set alarms on your phone to remind you to get up and move every 30 minutes or so. They can be short, as long as you get off your bum and move around a bit. Do some air squats, perform a few jumping jacks, or simply bounce around on the balls of your feet.
- Small steps. NEAT is a big complicated scientific concept, but increasing your energy expenditure doesn’t have to be. Start small. Just do the next-best thing: Sitting is better than laying down; standing is better than sitting; fidgeting is better than standing still; and walking is better than fidgeting.
Watching your nutrition and getting a sweat on at the gym both play a key role in helping you reach your goals, but what you do outside of the kitchen and gym matters more than you think. Now that’s neat! 😉
- Levine JA, Vander Weg MW, Hill JO, et al. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: The Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon of Societal Weight Gain. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2006;26:729-736.
- Levine JA, Kotz CM. NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis – egocentric & geocentric environmental factors vs. biological regulation. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica. 2005 July;184:309-318.
- Loeffelholz C. The Role of Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis in Human Obesity. Endotext. 2014 June.
- Levine JA. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).Nutr Rev, 2004;62(7):S82-97
- Ravussin, E., et al., Determinants of 24-hour energy expenditure in man. Methods and results using a respiratory chamber.Journal of Clinical Investigation.1986 December;78(6):1568-78.
- Levine JA, Schleusner SJ, Jensen MD. Energy expenditure of nonexercise activity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2000 December;72(6):1451-1454.
- Levine JA, McCrady SK, Boyne S, et al. Non-exercise Physical Activity in Agricultural and Urban People. Sage Journals. 2010 November;48(11):2417-2427.
- Gordon-Larsen P, Hou N, Sidney S, et al. Fifteen-year longitudinal trends in walking patterns and their impact on weight change. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008 December; 89(1): 19-26