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The difference between exercise and non-activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is that Exercise is defined as ‘bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness’ for example sport or, visiting the gym’. Neat, on the other hand is everything else that we do to move at the expense of  energy. Due to the first law of thermodynamics, the conservation of energy of a system, we know that maintenance and indeed gaining or losing weight is dependent on whether more or less energy is stored over time or expended over time. The aim of this article is to make the reader not only aware of the benefits of Neat but also conceptualize the basic mathematics involved and how to make Neat accessible, actionable and easy to understand. Basically, an eye opener into the other side of energy balance and how you can lose weight with the least effort necessary.

Keywords:  [NEAT, Calories, Kcals, Thermodynamics, Weight, Loss, Success, Easy, Active, Armchair, Walking, Fun, Leisure]

The Tired Old Story

Eat less, move more. Easy right? Then how come people are getting fatter? In its premise, it is correct. This is how energy balance works if you want to lose weight, but the advice isn’t actionable. The only answer to this problem as it occurred to one bright spark from Essex was to flip the advice on its fluffy head, “Eat more, Move less” Eureka! By George, Batman!, you’ve done it! If only we could solve problems like that, if only the answer to pollution was to create more landfills. The truth is that the principle of energy balance is all we’ve got and it works, we just have to make it work for us. I believe this article will shed some light on just how much control we really have, right at our feet.

Wiggle Room

We are not all as honest as we make out to be. We lie to others and we lie to ourselves. There, I said it. Whether we do some things on purpose or more by way of human error, calorie counting is not a skill we seem to be adept to naturally and we do tend to fudge things up on the regular, pardon the pun. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, we misreport calories, fact.

Let’s say you tracked really well or did all of the things that your coach told you to do but you forgot about the milk and sugar in your tea and you stayed over at a friend’s house and had orange juice at breakfast, whatever it may be but the end product is that you have overconsumed by 300 calories. Not the end of the world, of course not, but if under-reporting of 300 calories per day leads to you either lessening your deficit to 300 calories per day or eating at a surplus of 300 calories per day then you have a road block in the way of progress.

One of the best known, albeit slightly abstract, guidelines we have for fat loss is that there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat. That means eating at a deficit of 500 calories per day should lead to 1 pound of fat loss per week. Simples?. Calories are simply units of energy, so we could also just move around more to tip the balance into a deficit of 500. With that being said, what if there was a way to make walking this tight rope of 500 calories more like walking on a beam ? What if you could have a safety net? What if you could either widen the margin for error or give yourself the break you need if the inevitable happens? This is not an excuse to be non-adherent to your diet, this is a way to fast track long term success in weight loss but most importantly weight maintenance,  whilst also giving yourself that wiggle room you need sometimes. I’ve got a NEAT idea to tell you about.

Moving on

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is the fancy name given to anything you do to get out of bed in the morning up until you might go to the gym in the evening. If it gets you to move its NEAT. Moving from the armchair to the fridge or the desk chair to the water cooler, even swinging around in your office chair. These are the most mundane of examples but I aim not to understate the value of them.

When a 75kg person is sitting down watching tv on the couch they will burn about 50 calories per half hour. That same person who stood up and went to prepare a meal for a half hour would burn 95 calories. Extend that to an hour, let’s say you want to be proactive and get your meal prep done for the week so you spend an hour preparing and cooking, music on, not a bother to you. 190 calories extra per hour vs. 100 of just sitting on the couch. That’s nearly twice as much. But hold on, you get that feeling, the music flows through you and all of a sudden you are taken by a fit of rhythmic passion and metamorphose into Sasha Fierce for a half an hour while your chicken cooks. Result; ~200 calories expended through dancing enough to glisten with sweaty glitter à la Beyonce. Nice one.

Maybe this is normal behaviour, maybe it isn’t, who’s to say? All I know is that when my chicken is cooking I be doin’ ma thang, nah sayin?

Meet Eliza Do-Little

These numbers are based on a 75kg person. They are all relative to bodyweight and to the intensity of the activity. I am going to keep using this hypothetical person as an example but I would urge my readers to work out their own Basal Metabolic Rate for self-education. .

So this hypothetical person is a 75kg, 23 year old female. Her BMR is 1600 calories. Let’s call her Eliza. That means that in order for her to exist as she is with normal brain function, breathing and no weight gain or weight loss whilst lying in a bed, she needs 1600 calories from food. All of those processes are expending 1600 calories, involuntarily. If she does not eat those calories she will use up whatever energy stores her body desires in order to keep those processes going.
When she does decide to eat those calories the digestion and absorption will expend energy too. This is called the thermic effect of feeding (TEF). When we look at what takes up most of our total energy expenditure in a day (see figure 1) we can see that our BMR will use up about 60% and our TEF will use up about 10%. Anything else we do as physical activity will cost us more energy.

If we only eat enough to manage our BMR but we engage in any activity outside of bed rest we will be in an energy deficit and thus lose weight as body stores whether it be fat, carbohydrate (as glycogen or blood glucose) or we will lose muscle. This is where things get interesting.

Figure 1. Total Daily Energy Expenditure as %  (image courtesy of Mac-Nutrition Uni)


The BIG Deal.

There is a huge variance in Physical Activity.
Not so much in exercise unless comparing lay people to an ultra-endurance runner, but the difference is in Non-exercise activity. The variance is about 2000 calories of energy expenditure between people on top of BMR. That is a whole day of eating to a lot people.

To make a hypothetical comparison, we could have two versions of  Eliza. Eliza 1 is active, Eliza 2 is inactive. They both have a BMR of  1600 calories and eat 2500 calories every day. Inactive Eliza only uses up 500 calories through non- exercise physical activity every day, she works at a desk and drives to and from work. Active Eliza uses up 2000 calories every day through non-exercise physical activity. She cycles to and from her job as a waitress.
Inactive Eliza is in a surplus of 300 calories per day. That would lead to again of 0.6 pounds per week until she was at energy balance again at a heavier weight. Active Eliza on the other hand is in a deficit of 1100 calories per day and stands to lose 2.2 pounds per week until her BMR decreases due to being smaller and she arrives at energy balance.
That is a key point too. Your BMR goes down as you do, that’s why we need to either do more or eat even less to create a deficit as we drop weight.

For some people who are already quite small, maybe female, they don’t have a lot of room to take calories from food. In absolute terms, 2000 calories is not a huge amount of food to eat over a day. If a small woman wants to lose fat at a rate of 1 pound per week and she eats 2000 as it is, she is going to have to create a deficit of 500, that means eating 1500 calories if she does it through diet alone.
If she wants to lose 2 pounds per week she is looking at 1000 calories per day from food, that’s two meals to an average health seeking person. Things can get stressful on that few calories after a while and with some misreporting here and there it would get even more stressful spending even more time in a perceptibly very low energy diet but not getting the results you should.

10’000 steps per day?

Most of us will have heard that the Holy Grail for health and wellness is just to clock up those 10’000 steps every day. Is this an arbitrary figure to you? It was to me until I worked it out. I am going to show you how to work it out too, using METS scores.

1. Measure your average stride length in meters. Take a step forward and get the measuring tape to it.

  1. Multiply the amount of steps (in this case 10’000) by your stride length. Eg. 10’000 x 0.8m = 8000m.
  2. Convert it to miles. Eg. 8000m = ~5miles.
  3. How fast a walker are you? Did you spend all that time on the go or was it just ambling around the house? Walking at 2.5mph = 3.0 METS / 3.0mph = 3.5.METS / 3.5mph – 4.3 METS
  4. Bodyweight x METS x TIME (hours) = KCALSIf inactive Eliza walked 10’000 steps at an average pace of 2.5mph. (5 miles/2.5mph = 2 hours). She has burned roughly 450 kcals, if she does this every day she will put herself back in energy balance and will not gain any weight.

Figure 2. METS Values in Walking Activity




Remember, that number is only based on calories burned by walking a set distance at a set speed. She will burn more calories with other movements such as posture, facial tone, standing and fidgeting. Obviously these are less energy intensive and mostly involuntary and as such Martin MacDonald has termed the likes of fidgeting as NENAT (Non Exercise Non Activity Thermogenesis).

In this example though, we can see that maybe there is something to this benchmark of 10’000 steps a day.

Look out for part two of this article featuring the following headlines:

Fast and Slow Metabolisms Explained

STRIPE, Do whatever the F**K YOU Want to do and Enjoy It!

Go to the Gym 4 Times a Week and I Can’t Lose weight, I’m Broken!

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