Mind & Body

NEAT Is How Your Body Burns Calories Without Exercise

How do you burn most of your calories? Do you like to run, or are you partial to pumping iron? Whatever your exercise of choice, that's not the answer — in fact, even heavy exercisers burn a minuscule portion of their total calories at the gym. You burn many, many more calories through something called non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT. The best part? There are things you can do to maximize it.

Burn, Baby, Burn

Your body runs on calories, which are simply units of energy you get from food. At the most basic level, your weight depends on the balance between how many calories you take in and how many calories you use up: Take in more than you burn, and you gain weight, but take in fewer than you burn, and you lose weight; take in the same amount as you burn, and your weight stays the same.

Of course, saying that weight control is a matter of calories in versus calories out is a bit like saying you can make money on the stock market by buying low and selling high — it's true, but it's also a lot more complicated than that. For example, your body burns calories in a myriad of ways, which scientists have divided up into several categories:

  • Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or resting metabolic rate (RMR) refers to how many calories your body uses simply by keeping its systems functioning. It accounts for a whopping 60 percent of your total energy expenditure, although that rate can fluctuate depending on how big you are and how much muscle you have.

  • The thermic effect of food (TEF) refers to the amount of energy it takes to digest the food you eat. Yes, consuming calories actually burns calories — about 10 to 15 percent of your daily calories, in fact. (Before you even ask, no, there isn't such a thing as a "negative-calorie food" that burns more calories than it contains. Sorry.)

  • Exercise-related activity thermogenesis (EAT) is what you traditionally picture when you think of burning calories: energy used during deliberate exercise like lifting weights, playing baseball, or going for a bike ride. Despite its dominant spot in our minds, exercise actually accounts for a vanishingly small fraction of your daily energy expenditure. This is why diet is way more important than exercise if you want to lose weight.

  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to the energy you use during your day-to-day activities. That includes everything that isn't exercise, from bringing in the groceries and sweeping the floor to talking on the phone and fidgeting in your seat. This makes up the largest portion of your activity-related energy expenditure by far: anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of your total calories, depending on your activity level.

If you wanted to burn more calories per day, you could technically change any one of these: You could put on muscle to boost your BMR, you could find food that's harder to digest, or you could exercise more. But the category that has the biggest potential for impact is definitely NEAT: the amount of activity you engage in outside of the gym. So how do you change that?

Left Foot, Right Foot

The easiest way to change your NEAT is the most obvious: move more. Walking instead of driving and taking the stairs instead of the elevator are two of the most effective tricks — they can double or even triple the calories you would have burned otherwise. If you have a sedentary job, take more breaks to walk around or just get out of your chair once in a while. Playing with kids or a dog, cleaning the house, and even parking further from your destination can all help. NEAT is even affected by activities you wouldn't think would have an impact: chewing gum, fidgeting, and typing are all associated with a boost in energy expenditure. Plus, getting more daily activity can benefit your health in all sorts of ways, from boosting heart and bone health to improving your immune system.

One influence on NEAT that isn't so obvious: your food intake. The more you eat, the higher your NEAT; the less you eat, the lower your NEAT. When people say diets make your metabolism slow down, this is one of the things they're referring to. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint since it helps the human body conserve energy in times of famine, but it's also important for anyone looking to lose weight when famine is the least of their worries. When cutting calories, less is not more: If you reduce your intake too much, you'll not only make it harder to lose weight by making your NEAT plummet, but you'll also feel hungrier and make yourself less likely to stick to your goals. As the saying goes, "Everything in moderation, including moderation."

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For more simple tweaks that can help you get healthier, check out "Mini Habits for Weight Loss" by bestselling author Stephen Guise. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 22, 2018

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