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Weight is, in most cases, defined by the amount of energy that you take in (food and drink) less the amount of energy that you expend. If there is a surplus of energy then your weight will increase, this excess energy being stored as fat. If on the other hand there is a deficit of energy (you expend more than you eat) then your weight will decrease as your body uses fat and lean muscle to fill in the energy gap.
Traditionally the focus of our physical efforts to lose weight have been on gym based exercise, activity that takes place two or three times a week for a duration of an hour or so each time. Although this form of structured exercise is proven to improve fitness levels, provide huge health benefits and increase feelings of well-being, it’s a relatively small amount of energy expenditure when you look at the overall week.
Over a week, there are 168 hours. If you sleep for 8 hours a day that leaves 112. Going to the gym will make you fit and healthy, but even if you can manage 3 hours a week that’s only 2.7% of the time available for activity. Logic dictates that this wont make a huge increase in your overall calorific expenditure, so might not help to make you less huge! What about trying to increase your energy output for the other 97.3% of the time? It’s time to increase your NEAT.
NEAT, or non exercise activity thermogenesis, is made up of all the energy you burn while not taking part in structured exercise. Rolling over in your sleep, sitting at a desk, walking up the stairs, throwing a ball for the dog are all examples of NEAT. In fact it includes any type of movement that requires muscle contractions.
Although structured exercise has been the target of most exercise physiology research in the past, new evidence is suggesting that NEAT plays a role in both health and obesity. The first paper to focus on NEAT (performed at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota) examined weight gain in 16 non-obese adults who were given a 1000 calorie surplus (roughly the same as 2 Big Macs) every day for 8 weeks, while keeping their level of structured exercise at the same level. Not surprisingly, all of these subjects gained weight, but there was a huge variation: some individuals gained just 1.4 kg while others gained as much as 7.2 kg. What is very interesting is that changes in NEAT accounted for roughly 50% of the variation in fat gain. So, when overfed, some individuals naturally began to burn more calories through activities of daily living, postural changes, and even fidgeting, and this increase appears to be at least partly responsible for their resistance to weight gain.
A second paper by this same group compared the amount of NEAT in obese and non-obese individuals. As you might expect, obese individuals performed less NEAT than lean individuals. In fact, if obese individuals had NEAT levels similar to the more active people in the study, they would have burned an additional 350 calories a day, equivalent to roughly 1lb of fat every 10 days. Or 40 minutes of strenuous exercise in the gym! What is also interesting, however, is that this reduced NEAT was found in obese individuals even after weight loss, suggesting that NEAT levels are at least partially influenced by genetic inheritance.
In a recent BBC Horizon program, “The truth about exercise”, Dr Michael Mosley further investigated the effects of NEAT on individuals with different jobs and lifestyles. Using specially designed GPS monitors (fidget pants) the show concluded that even small changes to lifestyle can make a huge difference to the amount of energy expended during the course of a single day. Repeating the mantra “the chair is a killer, the chair is a killer” Mosley started cycling to work, having walking meetings, standing up to type and taking the stairs rather than the elevator. The fidget pants showed that he was burning up to 500 calories more each day – the same as attending a bootcamp. So of you would like to do a bootcamp without actually breaking into a sweat, get NEAT!
Ways to increase your neat could be walking to work, getting off a stop early and walking, parking a bit further away from your destination, sitting down for less time, having meetings walking and pacing up and down the office while on the phone (studies show that this also increases confidence and is a often used tool of sales people). Strength training will also increase NEAT, as small, non-exercise related movements will burn more calories if they are having to utlise more lean muscle.