• Jesse McMeekin

A Pretty NEAT Trick

Why NEAT—Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis—may actually have more to do with burning fat and losing weight than you'd expect.


More Than a Bad Pun

Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis—NEAT for short—is a smart way of referring to the cumulative effect of all the little things that go into your daily life: getting your 10,000 steps in, fidgeting at your desk, helping with the dishes, even brushing your teeth. Taken on their own, these are tiny drops in the caloric-deficit bucket, but taken as a whole they represent a surprising percentage of your total caloric expenditure, or metabolism. While its actual contribution to your metabolism is hugely variable, it can easily outpace exercise when it comes to total calorie burn.


In case that didn’t fully register: the total calories burnt by things like brushing your teeth, walking the dog, and helping with the dishes can actually exceed the calories you burn during a workout.


How’s that possible? What’s the science, and how do you take advantage of NEAT?


NEAT has three primary advantages as a fat burning tool:

  • It represents the biggest change we can make

  • More of the calories burnt via NEAT come from fat (as compared to high intensity exercise)

  • It doesn't trigger an opposing response


More Than Your Workout


In order to understand NEAT and why it's so important to fat loss, it's important to get a clearer picture of your metabolism as a whole. Your metabolism can be broken down into several key elements.


The first distinction we need to draw is between the resting and active components of the metabolism. Your resting metabolism is most strictly defined as your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR, and represents the sum caloric cost of everything from breathing to cell repair. It's your metabolism in laboratory conditions, with no outside influence whatsoever.


The active component of your metabolism is what happens when we take you out of the lab and let you do your thing, whatever that is. It includes exercise, something known as the Thermic Effect of Food, or TEF (digestion burns calories... it's part of why whole foods and high fiber foods may help you lose weight), and NEAT.


So, we've got BMR, Exercise, TEF, and NEAT. All four combine to make up your metabolism, and all but BMR are things we can influence to varying degrees. But while each of the three active components of your metabolism can be increased, NEAT offers to largest possible increase, and typically makes up the largest portion of your active metabolism.


The above graph represents a fairly typical breakdown of how calories are spent, with BMR representing the largest piece of the puzzle. NEAT comes in second, followed by TEF, with exercise coming in last place. That isn't meant to discount exercise, but it does highlight just how important those seemingly "little" things—like taking the stairs or getting your steps in—actually are.


More Fat


The second benefit NEAT offers has to do with what kind of calories are being burnt. There's a sometimes confusing inverse relationship between how quickly we're expending energy, and how much of it is coming from fat; as we work harder and harder, a lower and lower percentage of the calories being used come from fat.


That means that exercise, particularly high intensity work like strength training or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) burns a lot of calories, but most of them are coming from carbohydrates, not fat. When it comes to weight loss, any form of caloric deficit can be beneficial, but as you get leaner and leaner, NEAT may offer a way to more directly target fat stores, sparing muscle tissue.


More Sustainable


Think back to the last genuinely crushing workout you did. For me, it was a combination Squat/Deadlift/MetCon workout last weekend with some buddies. We finished up, and headed straight for a local pizza spot to crush some calories, then next door for some frozen yogurt. We went home, cleaned up, and crashed in front of a college football game.


None of us are looking to lose weight, and we all work as coaches and trainers, but the effect is a common—and probably familiar—one. Hard workouts drive hunger.


The reason is simple: you've just burnt a ton of calories in the form of sugar, and your body sends strong hunger signals to make sure it isn‘t left depleted. Combine this with the natural sense of fatigue that accompanies hard work, and you easily offset the calories you just burnt. That’s great when it comes to survival and performance, but not when it comes to losing weight.


NEAT sidesteps this dual reaction precisely because it’s not exercise; constant low level activity doesn’t result in the same ravenous hunger or overwhelming fatigue as a bunch of sprints, snatches, and burpees. The end result is that you’ve burnt more calories than you consumed, and the net deficit leads to weight loss.


Takeaways

  • Your metabolism has both active and resting components

  • Of those active components, NEAT is the most variable, and also the largest

  • NEAT may preferentially target fat as a fuel source

  • NEAT avoids triggering hunger or fatigue signals, and may help lead to an actual caloric deficit

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