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 flattering. That’s why I’m looking closer 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.
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?
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
Thermogenesis means 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 increase the latter.
Simultaneously, lean subjects could sometimes burn significantly more than the 1000 extra calories without exercise (Levine et al. 19998).
In overweight subjects, even a reduction in total daily caloric expenditure can sometimes 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 is how these planned activities differ from a workout.
According to the studies above, the unconsciousness factor makes NEAT different.
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 body response (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 rather than a caloric imbalance (Lustig 200115).
Insulin Sensitivity and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
Regarding non-exercise activity thermogenesis, the question of what can naturally, or unconsciously increase it arises.
Who commands muscle cells to take up energy and move our ass? Hormones!
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 vice versa.
Accordingly, more than half of the U.S. population already suffers pre-diabetes (Menke et al. 201517).
Thus, cells’ insulin sensitivity decreases, and they no longer absorb energy appropriately, which they consume unconsciously utilizing NEAT.
However, there is a type of cell that is not affected by insulin resistance. Fat cells blithely 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 must tackle it in 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).
Frequently Asked Questions (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
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3Fung J. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016.
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Mag. Stephan Lederer, MSc. is an author and blogger from Austria who writes in-depth content about health and nutrition. His book series on Interval Fasting landed #1 on the bestseller list in the German Amazon marketplace in 15 categories.
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