Most people immediately think of running, lifting weights, or taking fitness classes when hoping to burn more calories. While these are all effective and important for burning calories and improving health, there is a simple strategy you can start leveraging every day to significantly increase your caloric expenditure. I’m talking about something called Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT. NEAT refers to the calories you burn during your normal day to day activities from things like walking, taking the stairs, or carrying groceries. While NEAT is not a replacement for more vigorous physical activity, it is an important component of overall caloric balance and can have valuable impacts on health. This article will explain more about NEAT, its role in your energy expenditure, and how to easily integrate more NEAT into your life.
How NEAT Fits into Total Daily Energy Expenditure
Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or TDEE, is the sum of all the calories burned in a given day. Three main components make up TDEE – Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), and Activity Thermogenesis (AT). The proportion of each component varies between individuals, but there are some general averages or ranges for each.
Basal Metabolic Rate
BMR is the energy required for basic physiologic processes when in a state of complete rest. Essentially, it represents the bare minimum energy expenditure needed to keep us alive. BMR accounts for approximately 60%-75% of our TDEE. BMR stays relatively consistent. (Source)
Thermic Effect of Food
TEF is the energy required for the ingestion and digestion of food. This includes mastication (chewing), digestion, absorption of digested food, and transportation of nutrients. While the contribution of TEF varies between individuals, it comprises up to 10% of TDEE. (Source)
As a quick explanatory side-note. An individual’s caloric expenditure for BMR and TEF are relatively constant. That means that the number of calories that go toward these two parts of your TDEE doesn’t change much. Their proportional contribution to TDEE, however, can still vary quite widely. A highly active person, for example, will expend significantly more calories through AT than a physically inactive person. Therefore, the total number of calories they consume and expend will be higher. Thus, the percentage contribution from AT will be higher, making the proportional contribution from BMR and TEF comparably lower.
AT represents the calories burned through physical activity. This includes both Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT) and NEAT. The total contribution of AT averages around 15%-30% of TDEE, but in highly active individuals NEAT alone can account for as much as 50% (Source). An important note is that even for people who exercise regularly, NEAT accounts for a significantly larger portion of overall AT than EAT. Exact numbers are hard to discuss here because it is difficult to measure and varies so widely between individuals.
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How Burning Calories Relates to Weight Loss
Many of you who are thinking about the amount of calories you burn may have weight loss goals. I just want to briefly touch on how caloric intake and expenditure influences weight gain and loss. In the simplest terms, if you eat more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. If you expend more calories than you eat, you will lose weight. Anytime you burn more calories than you intake through food, you are in a caloric deficit. In order to lose weight, you must consistently maintain a caloric deficit over time so that your body will burn stored fat for energy. Now, it’s not quite so simple because the nutritional composition of different foods influences how much and how quickly those calories are stored as fat. I won’t get too deep into those weeds here. For our purposes, just remember that you must burn more calories than you eat if you want to lose weight.
Burn More Calories Through Activity Thermogenesis
Most people think that increasing their EAT is enough to lose weight or stay in shape. It is important to come to terms with the fact that there is much greater potential in leveraging NEAT than EAT when it comes to burning more calories. To put things into perspective, one hour of continuous vigorous exercise burns approximately 300-400 calories (Source). Now, even many who exercise regularly aren’t putting in a full continuous hour of vigorous exercise every single day. NEAT, in contrast, can vary between individuals by up to 2,000 calories per day (Source)! If you work out for an hour and then sit on your butt for the rest of the day, it’s highly unlikely that you will be burning enough calories to balance your food intake for the day.
How to Burn More Calories by Increasing NEAT
There are a number of strategies for increasing the amount of NEAT in your daily life. The most extreme version would be to switch from a sedentary desk job to a more active job like construction or restaurant service. While that would be a guaranteed way to drastically increase your daily NEAT, there are plenty of less extreme ways too.
- Get a Standing Desk – Standing burns about 8 extra calories per hour over sitting. That may not be a huge difference, but it adds up over time. Most people also tend to move around or fidget more when standing vs sitting (Source). This extra movement can significantly increase your energy expenditure over standing still (Source).
- Walk More– Walking can burn more than 200 calories per hour (Source). There are lots of opportunities to incorporate more walking into your day.
- Go for a walk every time you need to take a phone call
- Implement walking meetings at work
- Choose to park at the far edge of the parking lot when you go shopping
- Walk instead of driving when you can
- If you take public transport, get off a stop or two early and walk
- Do Some Chores (Source)
- Clean the House – upwards of 200 calories per hour
- Yardwork or Gardening – upwards of of 200 calories per hour
- Cook Dinner or Bake – upwards of 100 calories per hour
- Sit on a Stool Instead of a Comfy Chair – You’ll burn more calories and use your core muscles to stabilize your back. For extra points, consider something that promotes “active sitting”. I have and love this stool.
- Do Mobility Work While you Watch TV – Your body will thank you for both the extra calorie burn and the healthy movement.
- Take the Stairs – Stair climbing can burn as much as 3x the calories as walking on flat ground (Source).
- Carry Your Groceries Instead of Using a Cart – You’ll build muscle while getting errands done, it’s a win win.
In closing, NEAT accounts for the majority of the calories we burn through physical activity every day. Given that BMR and TEF are relatively constant, that makes NEAT the most valuable modifiable factor in our daily energy expenditure. I want to re-emphasize that NEAT is not a substitute for vigorous exercise. The health benefits associated with vigorous exercise extend beyond simply the calories burned. Rather, utilize NEAT in addition to your regular exercise program.
Throughout most of human evolution, we moved quite a bit as part of everyday life. Our modern lives have become so comfortable and convenient that it is now easier to not move than it is to move. Thus, we must consciously choose to incorporate more movement into our lives.
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Health Advice Disclaimer
This article provides examples that are applicable to many, but not all people. They are based on typical presentations seen in my personal clinical practice. This information represents common findings in the population discussed, but can in no way take the place of professional evaluation and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. It is impossible to provide 100% accurate diagnosis or prognosis without a thorough physical examination and likewise the advice given for management or prevention of any injury cannot be deemed fully accurate in the absence of this examination.
If you are currently experiencing any pain or injury, seek professional evaluation before undertaking this or any exercise program. Ensure that you are medically cleared for exercise before undertaking any exercise program. Significant injury risk may occur if you do not seek proper evaluation. No guarantees of specific outcome are expressly made or implied in this article.