Spring is just around the corner. Thus, it’s time to lose those extra pounds from the winter season for many people.
More and more, many of us see changing daily routines as a new key to losing excess weight.
Burning off pesky pounds instead of in the gym in everyday life sounds downright flattering. That’s why I’m taking a closer look at what it means to increase NEAT today.
What Is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)?
When it comes to fitness, NEAT doesn’t mean tidy.
The acronym NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
This concept is best described as the energy consumed by activities that do not include sleeping, eating, or exercising (Levine 20021).
Since this still sounds a bit abstract, we better look at simple examples that make the concept more tangible.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis Examples
Activity thermogenesis without exercise includes simple, often unplanned, or unconscious activities of daily living, such as:
- Climbing stairs
- Rocking the foot
- Playing a musical instrument
What can the NEAT effect do for overall health and fitness?
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis Benefits
A recent study looked at NEAT as a promising remedy for the rampant obesity pandemic.
In doing so, researchers were able to demonstrate the following health benefits of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (Villablanca et al. 20152):
- Increase in total energy expenditure
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Decreased risk of developing metabolic syndrome
- Prevention of cardiovascular disease
- Reduction in mortality in general
- These potential health effects sound promising.
But to better understand how NEAT can increase our fitness, we need to explain the concept of thermogenesis and its place in daily energy expenditure.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis Definition
The term thermogenesis means nothing more than the body’s ability to convert energy into heat. Nevertheless, various metabolic processes can induce this conversion.
What does this mean in the context of our daily caloric balance?
Total daily energy expenditure is composed of the following five components (Fung 20163):
- Basal metabolic rate
- Thermogenic effect of food
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis
- Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption
In short, total daily requirements are more complex than most people realize. Since the individual factors of total energy consumption are difficult to measure, we mistakenly assume that they are constant.
For this reason, the increase in exercise activity is often equated with that of calorie consumption.
However, the simplistic assumption that exercise is the only variable of energy expenditure one can change is plain wrong.
However, intense physical activity can provide an afterburner effect through increased oxygen demand or cellular repair.
Besides, food consumption can also induce a thermogenic effect.
For example, the body requires more energy to digest and absorb proteins than for the other macronutrients (Westerterp 20044).
However, basal metabolic rate, not exercise, is responsible for the lion’s caloric expenditure share.
Simple metabolic tasks that the body needs to regulate itself consume about 95% of daily caloric requirements, such as:
- Body temperature
- Fluid balance
- Acid-base balance
- Brain function
- Liver function
- Kidney function
Therefore, these basal metabolic rate dynamics, in turn, depend on the following individual factors of a person that influence its regulation (Fung 20165):
So how do these facts affect weight loss?
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis and Weight Loss
One of the major misconceptions in weight loss is the assumption of a stable basal metabolic rate.
In contrast, reduced caloric intake can decrease basal metabolic rate by up to 40 percent, and increased caloric intake can elevate it by up to 50 percent (Fung 20166).
Similarly, NEAT. Accordingly, Non-exercise activity thermogenesis increases with overeating and decreases with caloric restriction (Levine 20027).
Volunteers in a study at the Mayo Clinic ate 1000 excess calories in addition to the calculated daily requirement for weight maintenance.
Despite an additional intake of 56,000 calories, lean participants in some cases did not even gain a single pound over the experimental period of 8 weeks.
As a result, this study states that NEAT was responsible for lean individuals gaining only about one-tenth of the fat mass than overweight individuals.
While lean participants could increase basal metabolic rate, NEAT, and the thermogenic effect of food despite overfeeding, overweight individuals could mostly just increase the latter.
Simultaneously, lean subjects were sometimes able to burn significantly more than the 1000 extra calories without exercise (Levine et al. 19998).
In overweight subjects, sometimes even a reduction in total daily caloric expenditure can be observed in this context, despite overeating.
According to studies, when overeating induces non-exercise activity thermogenesis, the body can convert about 69% of the excess calories into heat.
On the other hand, if this mechanism does not work, it can lead to rapid weight gain.
The fact that insulin, norepinephrine, and leptin levels increase during this fat gain suggests a malfunction of the endocrine system (Vanltallie 20019).
Identifying the hypothalamus as a direct switch for NEAT in animals supports this theory (Levine 200210).
Because this region of the brain maintains homeostasis, it is said to regulate body temperature and body weight.
How to Increase NEAT
Among recommendations to increase non-exercise activity thermogenesis, you will always find:
- Acquire a standing desk
- Go for a walk
- Talk to colleagues instead of writing emails
- Avoid the car and walk
- Cook regularly
- Do housework and gardening
These are basic ideas that help people move more.
Nonetheless, the question here is how these planned activities still differ from a workout.
According to the studies mentioned above, what makes NEAT different is the unconsciousness factor.
When I incorporate small fitness exercises into my daily routine, that is just as much planned training.
NEAT, on the other hand, is a natural response to increased calorie intake. And it is precisely this natural urge of the body to move that we want to improve.
As the body strives to establish a state of equilibrium, it will downregulate others through new everyday life activities.
Researchers who looked at physical education found this compensation.
Students who got more sports unconsciously limited their everyday activities, so they did not exercise more overall than students without having PE.
Therefore, increased conscious activity did not reduce the body mass index (Cawley et al. 200711).
Instead, we need our hormonal system to work correctly to enable non-exercise activity thermogenesis as a natural response of the body (Vanltallie 200112).
Overweight people have one thing in common: increased levels of insulin, which correlate with body mass index (Ferrannini et al. 199713).
Besides, it is mainly stress hormones that unbalance our hormonal system and promote weight gain (Whitworth et al. 199414).
Therefore, we can increase NEAT as a natural mechanism of our body by permanently:
- Lowering insulin levels
- Fewer carbohydrates
- More healthy fats
- Intermittent fasting
- Lowering stress
- Stress management
Finally, obesity is a hormonal imbalance rather than a caloric imbalance (Lustig 200115).
Insulin Sensitivity May Increase NEAT Benefits
Regarding non-exercise activity thermogenesis, the question of what can naturally, unconsciously increase it arises.
Who gives muscle cells the command to take up energy and move our ass? Hormones!
In this context, insulin levels are the main culprit since stress can indirectly increase them (Whitworth et al. 199416).
If we increase the blood sugar levels by food intake, insulin levels rise and signal cells to take up glucose.
Exaggeratedly, you can imagine this effect like a hyperactive sugar shock in children.
But this process works worse and worse in people since they become insulin resistant due to the Standard American Diet (SAD) or Western Pattern Diet (WPD).
Lack of activity is the consequence of being overweight and not the other way around.
Accordingly, more than half of the U.S. population already suffers from pre-diabetes (Menke et al. 201517).
Thus, cells’ insulin sensitivity decreases, and they no longer absorb energy appropriately, which they consequently consume unconsciously utilizing NEAT.
However, there is a type of cell that is not affected by insulin resistance. Fat cells blithely continue to store the supplied energy other cells no longer consume.
In my opinion, it is, therefore, time to stop seeing the obesity epidemic as an activity or calorie issue. Instead, we need to tackle it at the endocrine system, where it originates.
Although humanity has never consciously exercised as much as it does today, weight gain and metabolic disease are almost universal (Westerterp et al. 200818).
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis FAQ
Why is non-exercise activity thermogenesis important?
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is important since it consumes more daily energy than exercise.
How can I improve my neat?
The best way to improve your neat without effort is to ramp up your endocrine system with intermittent fasting or a ketogenic diet. A more exercise-like way would be getting a standing desk for work.
How do you calculate non-exercise activity thermogenesis?
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis = daily energy expenditure – basal metabolic rate – thermogenic effect of food – exercise – excess post-exercise oxygen consumption
What is neat and why is it important?
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – the energy consumed by activities that do not include sleeping, eating, or exercising. It is important because it’s a substantial part of your daily energy expenditure
Studies and Books
2Villablanca PA, Alegria JR, Mookadam F, Holmes DR Jr, Wright RS, Levine JA. Nonexercise activity thermogenesis in obesity management. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015 Apr;90(4):509-19. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2015.02.001. Review. PubMed PMID: 25841254.
3Fung J. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016.
4 Westerterp KR. Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004 Aug 18;1(1):5. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-1-5. PubMed PMID: 15507147; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC524030.
5Fung J. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016.
6Fung J. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016.
7 evine JA. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Dec;16(4):679-702. doi: 10.1053/beem.2002.0227. Review. PubMed PMID: 12468415.
8Levine JA, Eberhardt NL, Jensen MD. Role of nonexercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science. 1999 Jan 8;283(5399):212-4. doi: 10.1126/science.283.5399.212. PubMed PMID: 9880251.
9Vanltallie TB. Resistance to weight gain during overfeeding: a NEAT explanation. Nutr Rev. 2001 Feb;59(2):48-51. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2001.tb06975.x. Review. PubMed PMID: 11310775.
10Levine JA. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Dec;16(4):679-702. doi: 10.1053/beem.2002.0227. Review. PubMed PMID: 12468415.
11Cawley J, Meyerhoefer C, Newhouse D. The impact of state physical education requirements on youth physical activity and overweight. Health Econ. 2007 Dec;16(12):1287-301. doi: 10.1002/hec.1218. PubMed PMID: 17328052.
12Vanltallie TB. Resistance to weight gain during overfeeding: a NEAT explanation. Nutr Rev. 2001 Feb;59(2):48-51. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2001.tb06975.x. Review. PubMed PMID: 11310775.
13Ferrannini E, Natali A, Bell P, Cavallo-Perin P, Lalic N, Mingrone G. Insulin resistance and hypersecretion in obesity. European Group for the Study of Insulin Resistance (EGIR). J Clin Invest. 1997 Sep 1;100(5):1166-73. doi: 10.1172/JCI119628. PubMed PMID: 9303923; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC508292.
14Whitworth JA, Williamson PM, Brown MA, Colman P. Hyperinsulinemia is not a cause of cortisol-induced hypertension. Am J Hypertens. 1994 Jun;7(6):562-5. doi: 10.1093/ajh/7.6.562. PubMed PMID: 7917157.
15Lustig RH. The neuroendocrinology of childhood obesity. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2001 Aug;48(4):909-30. doi: 10.1016/s0031-3955(05)70348-5. Review. PubMed PMID: 11494643.
16Whitworth JA, Williamson PM, Brown MA, Colman P. Hyperinsulinemia is not a cause of cortisol-induced hypertension. Am J Hypertens. 1994 Jun;7(6):562-5. doi: 10.1093/ajh/7.6.562. PubMed PMID: 7917157.
17Menke A, Casagrande S, Geiss L, Cowie CC. Prevalence of and Trends in Diabetes Among Adults in the United States, 1988-2012. JAMA. 2015 Sep 8;314(10):1021-9. doi: 10.1001/jama.2015.10029. PubMed PMID: 26348752.
18Westerterp KR, Speakman JR. Physical activity energy expenditure has not declined since the 1980s and matches energy expenditures of wild mammals. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Aug;32(8):1256-63. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2008.74. Epub 2008 May 27. PubMed PMID: 18504442.