Most people assume there are just two components to losing fat:
Your diet and your exercise program.
It’s true that these two factors both play a critical role. To lose fat, you have to be in a calorie deficit, i.e. consuming fewer calories than you burn, and so training and diet both play a huge part in this. By monitoring your intake and increasing your output, you get into a deficit, and lose fat.
But one often grossly overlooked factor is NEAT.
What is NEAT?
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. It’s essentially any activity you do that isn’t formal exercise. We’re talking things like walking, doing chores, moving around the house, and so on.
Your body burns calories in 4 ways - Through exercise, through your BMR (the calories burned simply keeping you alive and functioning,) through digesting food, and through NEAT.
Incredibly, though it may not seem like NEAT is hard work, and wouldn’t play a major role in fat loss, a 2018 study found that calories burned from NEAT can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day in individuals of the same weight.
In theory, that’s enough to equate to an extra 4 pounds of fat loss per week.
The ‘Truth’ About Exercise
Training hard and breaking a sweat is undoubtedly beneficial when it comes to getting in shape, building muscle and increasing fitness. But does it actually contribute that much to fat loss?
Data shows that common cardio activities such as cycling, running, and swimming burn anywhere between 240 and 733 calories per 30 minutes, depending on bodyweight and intensity.
The reality is, though, most people can’t sustain a particularly high intensity for that long, and so on average, you’re looking at probably between 250 and 400 calories per half hour of cardio activity.
That’s not too bad, but here’s the thing -
The harder you work with your cardio, the bigger impact it has on recovery. You can’t expect to be able to push hard with the weights, and go hell-for-leather regularly with your cardio, and maintain peak performance.
There’s a much higher risk of injury, not to mention increased soreness, and potentially strength losses, especially when combined with a calorie deficit. On the flipside, NEAT is such low intensity, it barely taps into your recovery reserves at all.
Therefore, as beneficial as regular cardio can be, you might find that swapping out some of your high or medium intensity cardio in favour of more NEAT allows you to preserve energy, strength, and perform better in your weights sessions.
It’ll take you a little longer, but your strength and muscle will thank you for it.
Is It Genetic?
NEAT has two main components - genetics and lifestyle.
A 2005 study in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism noted -
“The factors that impact a human's NEAT are readily divisible into environmental factors, such as occupation or dwelling within a "concrete jungle," and biological factors such as weight, gender, and body composition.”
This basically means your NEAT is going to be lower if you live a typical city-style life, work at a desk all day, get to work by car or on public transport, and have sedentary hobbies, whereas it’ll be higher if you have an active job such as manual labour, or you live in more rural areas, and tend to travel on foot.
Likewise, NEAT is also impacted by genetics. If you watch someone who’s naturally skinny, and seems to be able to maintain a lean physique despite not appearing to watch what they eat, you’ll notice they’re often fidgeting. They’re typically restless, and may tap their feet constantly, or pat a table, or even shake their head. These movements are very small and almost insignificant, but if they’re done every waking minute of the day, they can add up to a surprisingly high calorie expenditure.
The Real World Impacts
NEAT arguably has a bigger impact on fat loss than scheduled cardio sessions do.
Plus, it’s so simple to incorporate, doesn’t cause any stress on the joints, nervous system, or muscles, it makes sense to think about it more, and aim to increase it if you’re in a fat loss phase.
Even something as simple as standing up more can help. Studies have shown that obese individuals stand, on average, 2 and-a-half hours less per days than their lean counterparts.
So How do We Increase NEAT?
It’s virtually impossible to increase the genetic component of NEAT. By their very nature, the small movements that a person with a naturally high NEAT makes are involuntary, so you can’t bank on suddenly being able to remember to tap your feet all day long in the hope it’ll burn more calories.
What you can do though, is increase the amount of conscious NEAT you do.
As basic as this sounds, you’ll get a lot of benefit from simply walking more. Some people find aiming for a certain step target per day - say, 10,000 - is beneficial. This will burn around 500 calories per day extra, which works out to a pound of extra fat loss every week, without fatiguing your muscles and joints.
Whether you aim to get all your steps done in one go, or spread them throughout the day by doing things like parking further away from the office, taking the stairs instead of the lift/ elevator, or getting off the train/ bus a stop earlier doesn’t really matter. What matters is the total accumulation throughout the days, weeks and months.
You could even switch to a standing desk, which could easily contribute to a few hundred extra calories burned each day.
Ultimately, increasing your NEAT won’t be the difference between being overweight and getting a shredded six-pack, but the calorie burn does make a big difference over time, and either means you lose fat faster, or allows you to eat a little more, while still making consistent progress.