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N.E.A.T-O

June 9, 2009

My bodybugg is enjoying a new home for the next week or so. I do think it could be a really useful long-term tool for fat loss especially as people drop weight and their metabolism changes, but I also think taking regular breaks is a good idea. It’s kind of like calorie counting: Very useful, but not something I want to pay attention to all the time.

The biggest change in my behavior due to the bugg has been a new-found respect for N.E.A.T. Now for those who couldn’t be bothered to click the link I gave in my last bodybugg post, NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis and is basically any activity you do that isn’t specifically exercise/sports.

So, a quick introduction to metabolism. It’s composed basically of 3 parts: BMR (basal metabolic rate) is how much energy your body uses just keeping you alive. For someone who is mostly sedentary, this is going to be by far the biggest chunk in terms of energy usage. (To give you some idea, on a day when I’m basically sedentary, I’ll burn around 2200 – my bmr is around 1800 calories/day – therefore BMR accounts for about 82% of the energy I use. On a day when I work a seven hour shift and go to the gym, I can burn up to 4800 calories – in this instance BMR accounts for around 38% of the energy I use.)

The second part is the Thermal Effect of Food (TEF) which is the energy you use consuming, digesting, storing and absorbing nutrients. This takes a fair amount of energy and can account for 10% or more of the total energy you use in a day.

The third part is sometimes called the Thermic Effect of Physical Activity (TEPA) or just activity thermogenesis. This is any activity you engage in from getting up to turn a light off or running a marathon. As you can imagine, its impact varies greatly from person to person.

If you want to put into a handy equation: BMR + TEF + TEPA = TEE (Total Energy Expenditure)

So when we look at the components of metabolism, we can see that we have pretty much no effect on the first two (yeah, yeah, metabolic advantage, protein…blah blah blah..bullshit.) Physical activity then is the place where we have the most control in terms of increasing our TEE.

For many people, this would be a good incentive to really crank up the exercise. The only problem is that unless someone is training like a professional athlete would, they’re not really burning all that many calories relative to what they’re burning and consuming each day. This is where NEAT comes in.

You can read all about it here, here and here, but the summary is they’ve found that some people are genetically inclined to move more than others. And by move, I mean fidget, get up, change positions while seated etc… not that they’re naturally inclined to run 4 miles everyday. Over the course of a day, these little movements add up considerably. This is why you will sometimes find advice telling people to learn how to fidget more. This advice is, imnsho, stupid and a bit like telling a person to try and develop a tic on purpose. I have to think about fidgeting to fidget. As soon as I forget, the movement stops. But if little movements like that can add up, so can little movements we do consciously.

Because NEAT isn’t just about those movements which seem to be under biological control, it’s also lots of other activities that alone don’t look like much work, but add up to quite a bit. Cooking, cleaning, getting up from your desk to deliver a message etc… basically all those annoying pieces of advice (just take the stairs!) that we’ve been hearing from health advocates for a while now.

I was, to be honest, more than a bit skeptical about the power of NEAT. Going up a single flight of stairs was the difference between my state of morbid fatitude and immortal thinness?

Well, no. Going up a single flight of stairs isn’t going to do much of anything at all in terms of TEE, but taking the stairs instead of the elevator, cooking a nice meal, doing some light cleaning, playing some Wii tennis and chasing dogs/kids around the yard actually do add up. Despite being a little bit skeptical, for the time I’ve been trying to lose weight, I’ve also tried to look at places in my life where I could move more. But not where it would be forced and or just become a chore – like “oh god, gotta keep my neat up, time to pace.” And I can tell you, my house and car are cleaner than they’ve ever been. I’ve become a regular at the library where I love to wander around reading “Science” and listening to my headphones and I’m pretty much ready to turn pro at Wii sports. These are all good things, but I didn’t know if they really made any big difference in how much energy I was using.

To use myself as an example again, being totally sedentary, I’ll burn about 2200 calories/day. On a day when I cooked breakfast, did some laundry and light cleaning, went clothes shopping, washed and vacuumed my car, played wii sports with my lil sis, threw a ball to the dogs for a while, and then went grocery shopping (with lots of watching tv and reading in my bed thrown in during the day) I burned 3400 calories. That’s a big difference and I never felt like I was exercising at all.

The take home lesson for me is that while I’ll never learn to be a fidgeter, I can continue to change my lifestyle in ways that encourages more little movements throughout the day and that can add up to a lot more than what I generally do at the gym. You know what I think that is?

Yup, it’s neat. :p

A note: The researcher behind N.E.A.T, James A. Levine, has a book out about using the principle of little movements to lose weight. I have not read the book, but I must admit to always being skeptical about people who believe their pet research is THE ANSWER that everyone didn’t know they were looking for. Personally, I’m all for learning from all kinds of ideas and using what works for me.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2009 7:29 pm

    This is quite interesting stuff. I don’t really consider the calories burned by just cleaning or cooking. Sometimes when I wear myself out at the gym, I just sit on the couch the rest of the night, but I’ll try not to be so lazy when I’m here, generally. My place could really use the cleaning. BTW, I’m plenty fidgety, it didn’t stop me from gaining. But I used to eat way too much (still do on occasional, but not often)

    • June 9, 2009 9:42 pm

      BTW, I’m plenty fidgety, it didn’t stop me from gaining.

      Yeah, that’s why I’m skeptical of the diet book proclaiming NEAT to be the secret to weight loss. My mom cannot stop moving and, while she’s never been technically obese, she has always hovered on the lower end of the ‘overweight’ category*. But she tends to snack all day too and, as I know you know, any activity can pretty easily be matched by intake.

      *I think she’s healthy, but she’s always has about ten pounds she wants to lose.

  2. June 10, 2009 10:27 am

    I use the concept you are describing (I am anything but neat, so I don’t know that I care to apply the acronym to anything I do) in conjunction with my regular workout.

    People were made to move. Even a cursory study of our bodies and the way we are built makes that fact self evident. So I figure movement must be good.

    3 days a week I engage in a fairly intense (but short) bodyweight and kettlebell workout. 1 day a week I do short interval sprints (currently doing these up the particularly nasty hill in my back yard). And 6 days a week I hike for an hour or more in the woods.

    That is my regular workout.

    The fun part of my workout is throwing the football with my son, chasing my puppy around the yard (or letting her chase me), shaddowboxing with my eldest daughter, etc.

    I am also fortunate to have a job that involves being on my feet all day and occasionally lifting heavy things; and I do the bulk of the cooking for my household.

    Is it helping? I dunno. But it’s living . . .

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