NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, a neat term for all daily physical activities outside (endurance) sports. Why is NEAT so important in fat loss and (how) can you influence your NEAT?
1. Energy consumption as a result of exercise is much more than sport. Lifestyle (including profession), personality and environment determine how much you move ‘spontaneously’ or ‘unintentionally’ in a day, which can vary greatly from person to person. This also includes many movements that you make unconsciously, such as moving your hands when you talk, standing, wiggling and fidgeting.
2. The energy expenditure resulting from all these spontaneous bodily activities is called NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Your non-spontaneous physical activities – all forms of sports/cardio – fall under TEA: Thermogenic Effect of Activity.
3. People with a high NEAT do not have to go as low in calories to lose weight as people who lead a mainly sedentary lifestyle. In principle, however, you do not lose weight faster if you have a high NEAT: for fat loss, the energy deficit that you manage to create in one day, on balance, counts: calories in, calories out.
4. NEAT is less spontaneous than it seems: your mobility is actually quite ingeniously controlled from your brain. For example, if you are cutting, and therefore are in a energy deficit for a long time, your body will gradually cut back on NEAT. NEAT is therefore the most important component of metabolic adaptation, the process by which your body cuts down on your energy consumption when it sees it necessary – a survival principle. This makes it increasingly difficult for you to lose weight. Conversely, NEAT will increase as you eat more again.
5. You can partly compensate for the decrease in NEAT during cutting by becoming more mobile in your daily life: from working standing up to taking the stairs more often. However, you cannot influence another part: that concerns movements that usually happen unconsciously, like wobbling and blinking.
6. Because your body will cut back on NEAT anyway, sooner or later you will have to create more TEA (for example through cardio) and/or eat even less to maintain the energy deficit.
7. However, if your energy level has dropped to the point that your exercise performance will suffer (risking muscle loss), it’s best to take a refeed or diet break.
8. A high NEAT is also good for your health. Thus it helps prevent cardiovascular disease. In addition, an active lifestyle helps to sleep well, which is also beneficial for fat loss and for muscle maintenance or growth.
NEAT AS PART OF YOUR ENERGY CONSUMPTION
NEAT is part of the formula used to calculate your total energy needs. That formula is as follows:
BMR + TEF + NEAT + TEA = TDEE (total daily energy expenditure)
BMR = Basal Metabolic Rate (energy expenditure for primary life functions)
TEF = Thermogenic Effect of Food (energy expenditure in digesting food)
NEAT = Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (energy consumption for spontaneous movements)
TEA = Thermogenic Effect of Activity (energy consumption during sports/conscious movement)
TEA is also called EAT: Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. So all your moves together are EAT + NEAT.
WHAT EXACTLY IS NEAT?
Your arsenal of ‘spontaneous movements’ is much bigger than you think. These include:
- walking to the kitchen;
- walking stairs;
- doing housework;
- writing and typing;
- moving your hands;
- tapping your foot to music;
- blinking your eyes.
So ‘spontaneous’ actually means ‘unintentionally’: unlike sports, for example, you have no conscious intention to make the movement, you make it because it is necessary to function.
All these spontaneous, or unintentional movements together can make up a large part of your daily energy expenditure, even though the movements themselves seem very ‘small’. It is therefore often in the duration and/or frequency of the movements.
Keep in mind that sports, such as running on the track, always take place for only a small part of the day, for example only 30 minutes. NEAT actually takes place all day long. Only the energy consumed for digesting food and during sleeping is not counted as NEAT (but as TEF and BMR respectively).
Some scientific authors categorize NEAT into three sub-components, namely posture, ambulatory (moving) and all other spontaneous movements [ i ] .
AFFECTABLE VS UNAFFECTABLE
You could also make a subdivision into ‘influenceable’ and ‘unaffectable’ NEAT. Controllable activities, which you could therefore expand or limit, are, for example, walking to work, cooking or playing an instrument. Under non-impactable NEAT we then classify things as your hands moving while talking and wobbling in your seat.
Walking is not always counted as NEAT. If you consciously walk for half an hour every day after eating during your cut, that is in fact cardio and therefore TEA. But that’s a semantic issue and it doesn’t matter for a correct calculation of your daily energy consumption.
WHY NEAT CAN VARY GREATLY FROM PERSON TO PERSON
In our daily energy expenditure (TDEE), BMR and TEF are quite predictable: there are few differences between these types of energy expenditure when you compare people of the same age. In many people these together make up about a quarter of TDEE [ i ] .
However, the share of NEAT can differ enormously between people of the same age and of similar stature. In people with a sedentary lifestyle, the NEAT is at most 6-10% of TDEE, but it can be as much as 50% in people with a very active lifestyle [ i ] . And in practice that can make a difference of up to 2000 kcal per day [ ii ] !
Perhaps the biggest variable within NEAT is the profession one practices. So you understand that a house painter has a significantly higher NEAT than an office clerk. The figure below shows you that.
But personality also plays a role: an impulsive and spontaneous person (or someone with ADHD) will have a higher NEAT than a calmer person.
Finally, NEAT is also influenced by the environment. Example: a person living in a village may drive directly from home to work by car, while a city dweller is more likely to use public transport. The latter ensures that you move more: after all, you take a walk to and from the tram almost every day. The commuter misses this form of daily exercise, which can easily take one to two hours on a weekly basis.
In short, lifestyle, personality and environment have a major influence on your NEAT and therefore on your total energy consumption in a day. And therefore also on the amount of calories you should (or can) eat to maintain your weight, to build muscle growth (bulking) and to lose fat (cutting).
For example, if you’re struggling to create a calorie surplus in your bulk, you may have a large NEAT. But other factors also play a role, such as your body type. And age, not to forget: young adults have a faster BMR and therefore also consume more energy.
BENEFITS OF A HIGH NEAT
A high NEAT indicates an active lifestyle which is primarily good for health [ iii ] . For example, a high NEAT reduces the risk of the metabolic syndrome. That is a collection of complaints about the metabolism. It is a combination of elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, obesity (especially fat gain in the abdomen) and high blood sugar. Men are particularly affected [ iv ] .
In addition, a high NEAT reduces the risk of various cardiovascular diseases [ iii ] .
A high NEAT is in principle also beneficial if you want to lose fat. Because of the high activity level, you can continue to eat significantly more than someone with a low NEAT. It should be noted though that a high NEAT also makes you more hungry. Furthermore, an active lifestyle may also help you sleep better, which, combined with the aforementioned health benefits, is beneficial for fat loss, as well as muscle maintenance or growth.
Nevertheless, you do not lose weight faster if you have a high NEAT: for fat loss, the energy deficit that you manage to create in a day, on balance, counts: calories in, calories out.
THE ROLE OF NEAT IN FAT LOSS AND THE ‘ECONOMY MODE’
You know it: you have started your cut and in the beginning the pounds fly off. But over time, sometimes within a week, you lose fat less and less quickly, and at a certain point you don’t lose it at all.
Frustrating, but not illogical: the energy deficit you created with your calorie-restricted diet (and possibly with cardio) has caused your body to cut back on energy – a survival principle. We call this adaptive thermogenesis, or metabolic adaptation. The consequence of metabolic adaptation is that your TDEE has decreased and that you have to use an even lower calorie level to be able to burn fat again.
Metabolic adaptation is often attributed to “slowing down the metabolism”. But it is more nuanced. It is indeed true that your body will cut back slightly on BMR. But by far the biggest energy savings your body gets from NEAT, tells fat loss expert Dr. Eric Trexler. This happens under the influence of the hormone leptin, which ensures that your brain sends signals to your movement functions to move more efficiently or less.
NEAT’s adaptation is largely unconscious. Because of course you’ll just keep moving from A to B while cutting, you’ll keep cooking, typing and walking the dog (we may hope so). But in the meantime, your brain ensures that you wiggle and fidget less, for example. Or blink less. Small movements, which, seen throughout the day, cost quite a bit of energy. NEAT researcher Dr. James Levine notes how ingeniously our body actually deals with so-called spontaneous movements:
We may come to appreciate that spontaneous physical activity is not spontaneous at all, but carefully programmed. [ v ]
By the way, there are also semi-conscious savings: during a heavy calorie-restricted diet, for example, you will be inclined to take the elevator instead of the stairs. But that is something you can consciously (adjust) control, unlike blinking your eyes.
Metabolic adaptation also works the other way around, of course: if you eat more, you also start exercising more ‘spontaneously’.
HOW TO INFLUENCE YOUR NEAT FOR MORE FAT LOSS
Okay, so your body is going to cut back on NEAT. Now that you know that, you can do something about it! In other words, work focused on getting your NEAT up. By the way, this is not only useful during the cut, but as we saw in general, for your cardiovascular health, among other things.
Consciously influencing your NEAT means that you create a more agile existence in your daily life. After all, we’re not talking about adding cardio, which belongs to TEA (or EAT, if you will).
More non-sporty exercise can be done in all sorts of ways: working standing up when you normally sit, walking around when you’re on the phone, walking to a colleague instead of e-mailing, parking your car a lot further away, cleaning your house less efficiently (for example, constantly switching between floors), taking the stairs instead of the elevator… The possibilities are actually endless, as long as you make sure they fit naturally into your daily activities. James Levine:
Anything you can do throughout the day that cuts the amount of time you spend in a chair will help. [ vi ]
Tip: use the pedometer on your phone to monitor your ‘walking’ NEAT.
Nevertheless, you can only respond to your body to a certain extent. After all, we already saw that NEAT also embraces a whole arsenal of unconscious and therefore virtually movements. So you cannot influence this. In addition, your body will respond to your increased NEAT by cutting back even more on that unaffectable NEAT.
In any case, eventually your TDEE will drop to a point where there is no longer an energy deficit and you therefore no longer burn fat. What you can do then:
- further increase your impressionable NEAT;
- increase your TEA, for example by doing (more) cardio*;
- eat even less;
- a combination of the above three.
* Keep in mind that your body will also become more efficient in TEA over time, so that a certain amount of cardio burns fewer and fewer calories over time [ vii ] .
However, under the influence of metabolic adaptation, dietary fatigue also sets in, resulting in, among other things, a drop in your testosterone level. In the long run, you will therefore no longer have enough energy to maintain your training performance, while in the cut this is crucial for preserving muscle mass. In that case it is better to take a refeed or diet break in order to (partly) reverse the metabolic adaptation. As a result, your unconscious NEAT will also increase again.
1. Energy consumption as a result of exercise is much more than sport. Lifestyle (including profession), personality and environment determine how much you move ‘spontaneously’ in a day, which can vary greatly from person to person. This also includes a lot of movements that you make unconsciously, such as wiggling and fidgeting. The energy expenditure resulting from all these spontaneous bodily activities is called NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Your non-spontaneous activities – all forms of sports or cardio – fall under TEA: Thermogenic Effect of Activity.
2. People with a high NEAT do not have to go as low in calories to lose weight as people who lead a mainly sedentary lifestyle. In principle, however, you do not lose weight faster if you have a high NEAT: for fat loss, the energy deficit that you manage to create one day, on balance, counts.
3. NEAT is less spontaneous than it seems: your mobility is actually quite ingeniously controlled from your brain. For example, if you are cutting, and therefore have an energy deficit, your body will gradually cut back on NEAT. This makes it increasingly difficult for you to lose weight. NEAT is therefore the most important component of metabolic adaptation, the process by which your body cuts your energy consumption when it sees it necessary – a survival principle. Conversely, NEAT will increase as you eat more again.
4. You can partly compensate for the decrease in NEAT during cutting by becoming more mobile in your daily life: from working standing up to taking the stairs more often. You can’t influence another part, however: those are the movements that usually happen unconsciously, wobble or blink.
5. Because your body will cut back on NEAT anyway, sooner or later you will have to create more TEA (for example through cardio) and/or eat even less to maintain the energy deficit.
6. However, if your energy level has dropped to the point that your exercise performance will suffer (risking muscle loss), it’s best to take a refeed or diet break.
7. A high NEAT is also good for your health. Thus, it helps prevent cardiovascular disease. In addition, an active lifestyle helps to sleep well, which is also beneficial for fat loss and muscle maintenance or growth.
- [ i ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279077/
- [ ii ] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25905303/
- [ iii ] https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(15)00123-8/fulltext
- [ iv ] https://www.mmc.nl/urologie/voorwaarden-en-treatmenten/metabolic-syndrome/
- [ v ] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1521690X02902277
- [ vi ] https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/use-the-neat-factor-nonexercise-activity-thermogenesis-to-burn-calories
- [ vii ] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12609816/