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Focus on Your NEAT Before You Change Exercise and What You Eat in a Day to Attain Your Fitness Goals

No matter what your fitness goal, there is a good chance you’ve spent a lot of time focusing on food and exercise, and not given attention to the most important variable to success: your Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). If you’ve prioritized NEAT, that’s great! And this article isn’t for you.

During the last year and a half, I underwent, and continue to undergo, a wild body recomposition. During the first seven months of this journey, my focus was about building a good sustainable foundation of movement and eating on a regular schedule. The most important part of creating that foundation was to focus on my NEAT. I would not have been successful without prioritizing this aspect of my overall fitness.

What Is NEAT?

If you are unfamiliar with NEAT, these are all the things you do that burn calories, or expend energy depending on your preferred term, that are not sleeping, eating and sports-like exercise. Calories are simply a unit of energy.

There are four types of caloric burns.

The first type is your basal metabolic rate (BMR). These are the calories burned while sleeping or in a coma and are used to breathe and pump your blood; the ones that keep the lights on so to speak. For a lot of people, this accounts for most of their energy expenditure. Your BMR changes based on both weight and percentage of muscle mass. The more you weigh, the higher your BMR. The higher your muscle mass, the more calories you burn at rest as muscle is “alive”. If you lose weight without increasing your muscle mass, your BMR will drop, which can make it more difficult for some people to continue to lose fat. An increase in muscle mass while losing fat may not be enough to compensate for the lower BMR that comes with fat loss.

The second type is the thermic effect of food (TEF). These are the calories required to digest and absorb what you eat. It’s also why not all calorie sources are the same as it requires more energy to digest 1 gram of protein than 1 gram of carbs, as an example. TEF accounts for about 10% of your daily caloric expenditure but it is variable based on your macro ratios.

The third type is the calories you burn during exercise. Exercise is planned sports-like activities that increase your respiratory and heart rate for at least 20 minutes. If you do an activity and you’re not spending at least 20 minutes of that time in a heart rate zone required to start burning fat for energy, then it doesn’t count as exercise. Another test is, if you can easily carry on a conversation for most of the activity, it’s not exercise.

Which brings us to our fourth type of caloric burn: NEAT. These are all the calories you burn during activities such as casual walks and hikes, cleaning, cooking, mowing the lawn, gardening, bathing, typing, fidgeting, wheeling, cycling at a casual speed with little to no resistance, driving, showering, and the list goes on. For some people, NEAT can account for over half of their energy expenditure because they have a high-activity job.

Some people struggle with knowing when NEAT becomes exercise. One example is a walk or a hike that lasts for more than 20 minutes, where you are carrying added weight, there are a lot of inclines, and you cannot easily carry on a conversation for most of the time, then you have entered exercise territory. If you can easily carry on a conversation, no matter the activity, it’s not exercise. It’s important to know the difference so you know what level of activity you can push on rest days where active recovery is still important.

Why I Placed More Importance on NEAT and Not Exercise

Both BMR and TEF are largely outside of your control because of all the variables involved. Yes, increasing muscle mass will help. Yes, eating a high protein diet will help. But those boosts are small in the larger picture of energy expenditure. A focus on increase in muscle mass and more protein should be about overall health and less about weight management.

Because rest days are imperative for muscle repair and growth, you can’t exercise every day without risking progress. But you can do active recovery activities such as casual cycling. While you can count on BMR and TEF to be relatively stable over long periods of time, the same can’t be said for exercise calories as these change from activity to activity and are non-existent on required rest days.

NEAT is the easiest category of energy expenditure that you can manipulate and create a reliable daily caloric burn. If you change nothing but your NEAT, you will see progress towards your health and fitness goals. A lot of people think to achieve this, they need to meet a goal of 10,000 steps a day. That number was created purely to sell step counters. It’s nothing but marketing.

A lot of people also get upset that their “step tracker” tracks steps for things like chopping food. That chopping food counts as steps! Both activities burn approximately the same amount of energy. Step trackers should all be renamed activity trackers because that is really what you want to track.

It is because NEAT is the easiest thing to manipulate and maintain to see gains, that I placed the most importance here during the first phase of my current fitness journey.

How I Increased my NEAT

I have three types of work activities. Two are high activity: recipe development and photography. And the other is low activity: desk work that involves everything from writing, admin tasks, design work, etc. On low activity workdays, I set a goal to spend at least three and a half hours between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm doing NEAT activities. That may seem like a lot, but it was easy to accomplish.

At least 30 of those minutes are spent cooking breakfast and lunch. On days that I spend my afternoon break cooking my meals for the next few days, that time goes up to nearly two hours. The other time is made up by taking movement breaks when working at my computer. To prevent brain fatigue, I work using the Pomodoro technique. I sit at my computer for 20 minutes, then move for 10 minutes.

Because I can’t walk for 10 minutes, I hop on my stationary bike, close my eyes and mindlessly cycle in an upright position to the beat of the music in my headphones. I use just enough resistance to give the same effort as a casual walk while I resist the urge to crank it up and do out-of-saddle rhythm cycling to beats I love the most.

Which brings me to the other way I intentionally make sure I’m always active. Unless I’m editing a video or there is something on the news that I need to pay attention to, I always listen to music during work hours. I can’t listen to music without moving to the rhythm.

I used to fidget a lot a lot. When I learned to control my C-PTSD-induced anxiety, I stopped fidgeting to the same extent and my caloric expenditure plummeted. I still fidget for stimming reasons, but stimming is a different type of fidgeting than when I was living at a baseline of 8 out of 10 anxiety level. Listening to music brings me back up to that same level of baseline activity but without the anxiety and with an added calming effect.

For me, it was that easy to create a reliable average of 550 – 600 calories burned per day just on NEAT.

Ways You Can Increase Your NEAT

There are many ways you can increase your NEAT. I’m going to focus on suggestions that are easy to add a fun twist to, instead of the typical ones you may have read, like parking farther away from the store entrance or taking the stairs. The below suggestions won’t work for everyone because of different disabilities. Hopefully there are things in this list that work for you.

If you work remotely, use the Pomodoro method and move during the non-working periods. You can hop on a bike like I do, or scroll social media while walking on a treadmill, or play some music and do a 10-minute dance party. Do anything that isn’t pacing. Unless you’re pacing to help unstick your brain when facing a problem, you’ll probably find it boring. If it’s boring, you’re less likely to turn this into a habitual activity. Many smart watches have a move reminder if you haven’t taken 250 steps during the previous hour.

Move during meetings. Now that meetings are often done via Zoom-like platforms, it’s not as easy to pace/walk/bike during a meeting like it once was. I don’t have my camera on during meetings for accessibility reasons. Maybe you can turn off your camera and turn meetings into active time. Maybe one of those walking pads under your desk is the answer. Or using a standing desk. Otherwise, if you have a good old fashioned phone call, use that time to pace. If your brain is like my brain, turning meetings into active time may also help you to better concentrate on what everyone is saying.

Use fidgets. Not all fidgets are created equal. Some may give you the squicks while others you won’t want to stop using. With the right device, you may find yourself mindlessly fidgeting for hours while doing other activities that are typically passive, like watching TV.

Take up a hobby such as knitting, painting, cooking, baking, or playing an instrument. You want to take up a hobby that requires a fair amount of movement. Instruments that require standing and have a fair amount of weight to them give an extra NEAT bonus.

Make time for more casual walks or wheeling. If you have a dog, take them on longer or more frequent walks. If you have a partner or children or roommates, reinstitute the time-honoured tradition of the after-dinner walk and conversation. If you are going it alone, maybe music will help break the monotony of the experience and create variable pacing with the rhythm of the music. Listening to a podcast or audiobook may also help.

Listen to music more often. This is for those of you who can’t help but to, at a minimum, bounce your foot to the beat. Listening to music while you cook or do chores can also increase your NEAT as you may find yourself full on dancing during these typically boring activities.

And if you simply want to focus on building up your steps, here is a handy article with how many calories you can expect to burn based on your weight and height.

That’s it!

What are some of your favourite NEAT activities?

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