Fat loss has an identity crisis — and you’re the one suffering from all the confusion.
While the “rules” of fat loss and crushing calories are not overly complex, there’s a reason why the number of overweight people continues to swell. It’s the same reason you struggle to lose the first 20 pounds — or the last 10 standing between you and your abs.
Why does fat loss have you so confused? Because we misunderstand how fat loss works, and what you can do to help the process be a little less complicated. Yes — if you want to lose weight, the old adage of “eat less than you burn” is true. But that’s where the problems begin.
Eating less is not that simple. If you have tried to reduce how many calories you eat in a day, you know this to be true. And telling someone they are “lazy” or “don’t care enough” doesn’t do anything to fix the problem or help. (Not to mention, it’s usually not accurate; weight loss is a difficult process that takes time.)
Fat loss is not about a single meal or workout. It’s the combination of efforts (like NEAT) that are overlooked.
And even if you do eat less, you might battle psychological or physiological barriers that make it even harder to drop pounds. Or when you start to eat fewer calories, the difficulty of maintaining that pace also seems to force you to quit.
It’s not fair, but that doesn’t mean it’s a losing battle. Most people never take the time (translation: go to a doctor, get blood work done, examine the mental barriers) to understand why the pounds don’t come off. You just understand your reality — you don’t look different and neither does the scale.
There’s another part of the equation that’s oftentimes overlooked, and it has nothing to do with eating. When you hear “burn calories,” you’re probably thinking about metabolism crushing workouts [soul-crusher], doing cardio, or hitting the weights.
From an exercise perspective, fat loss is not all about insanely intense workouts. In fact, if you talk to some of the leading researchers, it’s the easier approaches to fat loss that everyone forgets. And it could be the link to you dropping a few extra pounds or jumpstarting a big weight loss journey.
Still confused? It’s time for you to uncover the missing piece of the fat loss equation.
How You Really Burn Calories
Pardon me for a moment while we do a little math. (I promise it won’t take long.)
The total number of calories you burn in a day comes from three sources:
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): This is the number of calories your body uses simply by being alive. Even if you were to lay in bed all day, your body would burn them. Roughly 60% of the calories we eat in a day go toward maintaining these baseline biological processes.
- Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): The amount of energy it takes to digest, absorb, and store food. The rate varies from person-to-person, and from food-to-food (protein is the most “metabolically expensive” macronutrient, with up to 30% of its calories being burned during the digestive process.) But on average, TEF accounts for about 10% to 15% of our daily calorie burn.
- The third element is Activity Thermogenesis (AT). But this category has two components: exercise—any kind of moderate-to-vigorous session in the gym, on a bike, on the trails, etc.; and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT), which basically includes everything else. Standing, walking, fidgeting—they all contribute to NEAT.
While NEAT might elicit a sarcastic remark deserving of its name (neat? Pssshhh), if you only think of exercise as the activity you do in the gym, then you’re missing out on huge fat burning potential.
Don’t just take our advice at face value, researchers have been studying it for years. What they’ve found is that NEAT can have an enormous impact on the total calories a person burns—as many as 2,000 per day. And that’s much more powerful than any fat burning supplement or BS appetite suppressant.
If you’re serious about fat loss, NEAT is the cost-effective (it’s free!), scientific approach that can work for your body.
Oftentimes, we choose to compare types of exercises. Weights are better than cardio. High-intensity training (things like HIIT) are better than slower bouts of treadmill time. But:
Fat loss is not about a single meal or workout. It’s About the combination of efforts.
You already know that a killer 30-minute workout can burn hundreds of calories—but so can a few hours at the mall. For example, an 180-pound guy can burn about 285 calories just by taking a one-hour leisurely walk.
Just because you aren’t out of breath doesn’t mean your activity doesn’t ‘count.’ In fact, the opposite is true: All of the ‘light’ activity you do can tip the scales pretty heavily in your favor.
For example, in a 2005 study by Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic recruited a group of 20 people. Half of them were lean, while the other 10 were obese self-proclaimed “couch potatoes.”
After tracking them for 10 days, researchers found that the obese people sat for 164 minutes longer during the day than their slimmer counterparts. What’s more, the skinnier group stood for about 152 minutes longer than the obese group.
Levine’s team crunched the numbers and determined that if the obese subjects did nothing else other than stand or stroll as much as the lean group, they would burn an additional 352 calories per day.
Again: That’s more than 350 calories—nearly 15 percent of an average male over age 30’s daily intake requirement—burned without adding any exercise at all.
But even if you’re not among the couch-bound, NEAT plays a bigger role in your life than you think. Levine wrote in a 2004 review in the American Journal of Physiology: “NEAT, even in avid exercisers, is the predominant component of activity thermogenesis and is the energy expenditure associated with all the activities we undertake as vibrant, independent beings.” [Emphasis added.]
Put another way: “There are 168 hours in the week,” says Harley Pasternak, a celebrity trainer who’s worked with everyone from Lady Gaga to LL Cool J. “If you work out for an hour a day, five days a week, there are still 163 hours—or 97% of the week—that you’re not in the gym.”
Even the most highly committed workout-a-holic will still spend more of their life away from the gym than in it. Your habits during those non-training hours can either work for you, or against you.
The Trapdoor: How to Combine NEAT and Exercise
NEAT can help you work toward your weight loss goal. But here’s where things get tricky: Your workout can work against your NEAT.
James Krieger, M.S. nutrition and founder of Weightology, says that some exercisers actually erase all the calorie-burning benefits of their workouts by being less active the rest of the day (compared to a non-training day). And there’s research that backs up this idea.
“Let’s say a person expended 200 calories during an exercise session,” Krieger says, “they can actually make up for it by their NEAT levels going down by 200 calories the rest of the day. It’s like they didn’t exercise at all.”
One possible reason: They’re so exhausted afterward.
“I tell people, if you have a client that’s interested in fat loss, be careful how hard you work them because if you work them so hard that they sit around and don’t do anything the rest of the day, you may actually doing them a disservice if they are trying to lose body fat.”
If you needed more proof that not every workout should kick your ass, now you have it. But there’s also evidence that biology plays a role, too. “Your body doesn’t like being in an energy deficient state,” say Krieger. “If you’re dieting and exercising, your body is going to try and resist that by decreasing your NEAT levels, whether that’s by less fidgeting or moving around.”
So what can you do to combat this subtle sabotage? Krieger recommends that people wear a pedometer and try to maintain the same level of activity every single day—even on the days when you do an extra-hard workout.
“The key is consistency,” Krieger says. “If you’re only doing it once in awhile, it’s not going to make much of a difference, but if you do it consistently, it’s going to add up.”
Note that he’s not telling you to give up wind sprints in favor of a walk. NEAT isn’t going make you jacked. Resistance training does that.
What he’s saying is that you should do the wind sprints and take a walk.
How to Make NEAT Work for You
This is not an invitation to start forcing mini-workouts into your day. You don’t need to look for ways to break a sweat at every waking moment of the day. You don’t need to perform bodyweight squats while you cook. That isn’t NEAT. That’d be exercise. (That’d also be awkward.)
Instead, pay attention to how much time you spend moving—or not—during the day. In his book “Move a Little, Lose a Lot,” Dr. Levine recommends keeping an activity journal for a few days. You’d want to record at least one weekday and one weekend day. Track how you spend your time in half-hour intervals. Mark each activity into one of three categories: sitting, standing or moving.
When your log is complete, take a look at each item—especially the ones categorized as sitting. Think of ways you could make those tasks more active. For example, those conference calls you have to be on at work—could you take them standing up, or even strolling around your office?
Levine recommends 135 minutes of NEAT time during the day—which sounds like a lot, but really only amounts to slightly less than 10 percent of a 1,440-minute day (yes, that’s how many minutes there are in one). And remember, standing counts.
Small activities burn more calories than you’d think. Vacuuming the house for 30 minutes burns 143 calories. Cleaning the garage for 30 minutes burns 122 calories. Use a standing desk (which both Winston Churchill and Leonardo Da Vinci apparently did) for an hour and you’ll burn 98 calories. Everything you do in your garden burns between 100 and 200 calories an hour. So does pacing or walking the dog.
Think of every step you take as a small win. A 2011 study published in the journal International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity researchers found that taking a 5-minute walking break every hour could burn an extra 660 calories per week. Extrapolate that over one year and you could lose about 9 to 10 pounds just by adding up the 5-minute walks.
Again, the point isn’t to cheat the system. It’s to understand that fat loss is not just a byproduct of weight training or diet. There are other efforts you can do that — when added up over time (think 2-3 months, or longer) — can have a significant impact and help you finally understand how to make fat loss programs work for you.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.