How often have you been recommended to “get your steps in”; or seen people avidly checking their fitness watches for their step count; or even hear people saying their biggest health tip or weight loss hack is working to increase their “NEAT”? But what does that even mean? And why is it so important?
The importance of step count is often stressed but it is very rarely explained meaning it's hard for us to understand its impact and what role it plays in weight management. But it’s not just your step count that is important, it’s NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) activities as a whole.
So what is NEAT?
NEAT is an important part of our Today Daily Energy Expenditure, also known as TDEE. Your TDEE is made up of RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate), TEF (Thermic Effect of Food), EAT (Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) and of course, NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). These components of energy balance all play a vital role in our TDEE.
RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate) is the amount of energy used just to exist and carry out everyday bodily functions. This can make up for around 60% of our TDEE but it can vary between individuals depending on factors such as body size and fat percentage. TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) accounts for around 10% of TDEE. This is the energy that it takes to digest food and absorb all the nutrients into the body.
Physical activity accounts for around 15-30% of TDEE and is separated into EAT and NEAT. EAT (Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) is where energy is used during planned exercise. Planned exercise is that which usually has the intention of improving health, such as a run or a gym workout.
NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), is the process where energy is expended doing anything that is not planned exercise, sleeping or eating. NEAT activity is the movement that is part of our daily routine such as walking, climbing the stairs, cleaning and even fidgeting. It’s any exercise that doesn’t require large amounts of intense activity or effort, essentially anything that is not considered an EAT activity. A benefit of NEAT activity is that it occurs at a slower pace and therefore can last for hours. We can constantly be carrying out NEAT activity without tiring out.
As NEAT activities can be nearly anything that we do in our everyday life, they are varied and will differ from person to person; both by type and amount of activity. It is the most variable component of TDEE. This means increasing our NEAT is one of the easiest ways to increase our TDEE. Even the simplest activities can have a huge impact on TDEE. This is due to the cumulative impact of them throughout a day that increases our NEAT.
Why is NEAT important?
Whether your goal is weight loss or maintenance, understanding the impact of NEAT on your TDEE is important. It’s been found in many studies that NEAT has a significant impact on our Total Daily Energy Expenditure, more so than the impact of EAT activities. Even in avid exercisers! As a result, NEAT can have a huge impact on your weight.
On the most basic level of weight loss and gain; weight gain is caused by increased energy stores which occur when food intake exceeds energy expenditure. On the other side of the spectrum, weight loss can only occur when energy stores are depleted, caused by energy expenditure exceeding food intake. So, the balance between energy intake and expenditure determines weight gain, loss or maintenance.
As NEAT plays a detrimental role in our energy expenditure, it plays an important role in weight management. Lower levels of NEAT activity are linked with weight gain and obesity whilst higher levels of NEAT activity are associated with weight loss.
Even for those who exercise regularly, sitting for long periods of time has been shown to negatively affect their metabolic health. On top of this, it has been found that EAT activity does not and cannot counteract the negative impact of sitting down for a long time. So NEAT activities are essential to metabolic rate even if individuals regularly take part in intense exercise.
What does this mean for you?
If you’re looking to lose weight, it is essential to consider your NEAT activity levels as they could be a key component to helping you lose weight. Increasing your NEAT can increase your TDEE, helping you maintain a calorie deficit.
If you are looking to maintain your weight or focus on overall health, your NEAT activity is still important. If you work to increase your NEAT activity and therefore increase your TDEE, it will mean you can and actually will need to eat more to maintain your weight! The higher your NEAT, the more calories you will need to consume.
Of course whilst energy expenditure is important, energy consumption cannot be ignored. As we mentioned above, weight change or maintenance is controlled by two, equally important factors: energy expenditure and intake. In order to lose or maintain weight, the balance of intake and expenditure of energy must be managed.
To lose weight, an energy deficit must be created, through calorie intake and energy expenditure. It’s a good idea to adjust both by decreasing your caloric intake, through diet, and increasing your TDEE through increasing your NEAT activity.
So, how can you increase your NEAT? Below we’ve listed some of our favourite activities that the team here at WithU love incorporating into our daily lives to increase our NEAT.
One that you’ve probably heard before is parking further away from the shop so that you have to walk further. It’s such an easy habit to get into, it doesn’t add that much time to your daily routine and it’s helping to increase your NEAT. Similarly, getting off the train or bus one stop earlier and walking that extra distance is great, but might
require some time planning to fit your schedule around!
Be active around the house
Now that we aren't in lockdown and stuck at home, there is less need to find a way to be active indoors. But ensuring you’re active throughout the day, around your house, is a great way to keep your NEAT activity up, especially if you are working from home. Cleaning the house is a great way to keep moving, another fun one is to blast some music and dance around the house. Working from home can mean that you are more sedentary than usual. We recommend standing up and walking around the house every hour or so, just to keep moving. You could also make sure to go for a walk before or after work, or even on your lunch break.
Make active choices
Increasing your NEAT becomes so much easier when you are more active in your daily life. We recommend focusing on making choices throughout your day that are conducive to an active lifestyle. For example, a common and ever-so-popular recommendation is to take the stairs rather than the lift or an escalator. It’s a great way to increase your activity level. Another good choice to make is taking public transport over driving when you can. This will ensure you move around and walk further. As an added bonus, choosing to stay standing up on public transport will help to increase your NEAT further.
Whilst keeping up your training is important, as NEAT is the main component of TDEE variability, we recommend everyday, regular movement in order to increase your Total Daily Energy Expenditure. We want to emphasise the importance of focusing on an overall active lifestyle. It is not only beneficial for weight management; an active lifestyle will also benefit your overall health and wellbeing.
So, get moving and get your NEAT activity up!
Chung, N., Park, M. Y., Kim, J., Park, H. Y., Hwang, H., Lee, C. H., Han, J. S., So, J., Park, J., & Lim, K. (2018). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): a component of total daily energy expenditure. Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry, 22(2), 23–30. https://doi.org/10.20463/jenb.2018.0013
Levine, J. A. (2002). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab, 16(4), 679-702. doi: 10.1053/beem.2002.0227
Levine, J. A. (2004). Nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): environment and biology. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 286(5), 675–685. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00562.2003