Written by Coach Austin Current
In this article, we are going to cover the definition of NEAT, why it is a variable you should care about, and how it can directly benefit your body composition.
What is NEAT?
NEAT is an acronym that stands for Non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Sounds fancy, huh? Well, it isn’t. It is the energy expended by things like walking, cleaning, maintaining your posture, cooking, work-related tasks, talking with your hands, fidgeting, et cetera (1,2).
This is a component of our 1-on-1 coaching that we have started to notice the need for less programmed cardio when non-gym-related activities are maintained.
One reason NEAT has the opportunity to be so impactful for your body composition and overall health is the variable influence it can have on your daily energy expenditure ⏤ meaning it can change by the day based on your activity level.
The three components that make up your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE): Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) ⏤ diet-induced thermogenesis, and Physical Activity (PA). BMR and TEF are relatively fixed amounts of your TDEE variance. This basically leaves us with Physical Activity (PA) ⏤ EAT (exercise-related) and NEAT (non-exercise related) ⏤ to adjust our TDEE. It has been shown that NEAT can be responsible for up to 6-10% of daily energy expenditure among sedentary individuals and up to 50% or more with highly active people (2,3,4).
Benefits of NEAT for Body Composition
When setting up a program for our 1-on-1 clients, we pull data from an initial questionnaire that each incoming client fills out. In this questionnaire, we ask about past training history, dieting history, gym restrictions, et cetera. More specifically, we are very interested in your activity outside of the gym:
- How active is your job?
- Do you go on daily walks?
- Do you go to the grocery store or do you order them online for delivery?
- Are you a person who can not sit still or are you full-on sloth?
The answers to these questions are important to how we will set up your initial plan.
Why is this information important? These NEAT driven tasks can account for the variability of up to 2,000 calories per day of energy expenditure (5)! You can see how this could start to impact your training, nutrition, and cardio demands.
If you have ever been in a fat loss phase or a contest prep, you have observed first hand how subconscious non-exercise activity can organically diminish throughout the day/weeks/months. Although NEAT is something we can consciously control, it can be tough and it is not something that stays consistent or fixed from day-to-day or week-to-week.
It seems that this subconscious behavior is regulated by a central mechanism that acts as a sort of checks and balances based on current energy intake (5). In a caloric deficit, your non-exercise activity will decrease; in a caloric surplus, your non-exercise activity will increase.
In 1999, Levine and colleagues overfed people by 1,000 calories per day for 8 weeks. In this group, some gained 0.8lbs of fat while others gained up to 9.3 lbs of fat. Within these groups, some increased NEAT upwards of 692 calories per day while the others reduced NEAT by 98 calories per day. The researches attributed differences in fat gain to the differences in NEAT from both groups. Looking at this specific study, it would seem that the largest increase in NEAT ⏤ in response to being overfed ⏤ gained the least amount of fat (6).
Why This Matters
If you have a goal of improving ⏤ or maintaining ⏤ body composition, NEAT is a large determinant variable that you have control over. It’s a variable that also does not put more on your plate, per se. The goal: be active throughout your day. If you have a sedentary job where you mainly sit, go for short periodic walks. The human resource representative at my old employer took full advantage of short walks to help break up her day and increase her NEAT. Every hour, she would get up and take a lap around the parking lot. By doing this 8 times per day, she was able to accumulate an average of 15,000 steps per day. If you work a desk job, you know that hitting 5,000 steps per day can be a challenge. If you’re someone who orders their groceries online for convenience, try physically going to the store and shopping. My last visit to the store accrued around 2,500 steps ⏤ easy to do and helped me hit my daily step goal.
We have found that our clients do less overall cardio because of increased NEAT throughout their week. If you dislike cardio, this is a big win for you ⏤ as most cardio is prescribed to get in steps and burn calories.
Tip: If it doesn’t drive you crazy, we suggest that you maintain a steady step count throughout your day by taking daily walks, or going about your daily activity. Although you may not have the same amount of pacing, fidgeting, and spontaneous movement, you will keep that non-exercise activity number higher than you would without the monitored step count or activity.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is a variable that you have control over. Of what we know of the rest of life, it’s best to focus on what you can control. If your goal is to improve or maintain your body composition, non-exercise activity is one of the easiest ways to tip the scales in your direction to achieve or maintain the results you’re seeking.
Written by Coach Austin Current, BSc, CSCS, IFBB, Pn1
- Levine, James A. “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).” Best Practice & Research. Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2002, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12468415.
- Loeffelholz, Christian von. “The Role of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis in Human Obesity.” Endotext [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 9 Apr. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279077/#non-exrcse-thrmo-obs.toc-individual-and-environmental-determinants-of-neat.
- Levine JA 2004 Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Nutr Rev 62:S82-97
- Ravussin E, Lillioja S, Anderson TE, Christin L, Bogardus C 1986 Determinants of 24-hour energy expenditure in man. Methods and results using a respiratory chamber. J Clin Invest 78:1568-1578
- Levine, J.A. and Kotz, C.M. (2005), NEAT – non‐exercise activity thermogenesis – egocentric & geocentric environmental factors vs. biological regulation. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 184: 309-318. doi:10.1111/j.1365-201X.2005.01467.x
- Levine JA, Eberhardt NL, Jensen MD. Role of nonexercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans. Science. 1999;283:212–214