You burn a lot of calories in a short period of time when you exercise at the gym, but even if you work out 2 hours a day, it’s only a fraction of the time you spend awake. The rest of the day you’re involved in other activities like typing on the computer, cleaning house, brushing your hair, moving boxes and simply fidgeting. There’s a name for this type of activity. It’s called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT. It includes the calories burned when you’re not sleeping, eating or doing a structured form of exercise.
The amount of calories people expend during the day in non-exercise activity thermogenesis is highly variable from individual to individual. It’s this variability that may account for why a person who works a desk job during the day and comes home to watch television at night can’t seem to lose a pound while a person who has an active job stays slim even though they never go to the gym. NEAT or non-exercise activity thermogenesis accounts for anywhere from 15 to 50% of a person’s total calorie expenditure throughout the day.
It’s NEAT that partially explains why people who successfully lose weight gradually gain it back. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is partially controlled by hormones that send a message to the brain to increase or decrease activity levels based on a person’s energy intake. When you restrict calories and your body senses a lack of fuel, it sends a message to reduce NEAT so you move around less even if you aren’t consciously aware of it. When you boost your energy intake, non-exercise activity thermogenesis goes up. This is a way for your body to maintain a stable energy equilibrium.
Are you a person who puts on a few pounds in the winter and quickly loses them in the summer? There’s a reason for that. People have higher NEAT levels in the summer since the warm, pleasant weather keeps them more active. Occupation plays a role too. Not surprisingly, people who have sedentary jobs have less non-exercise activity thermogenesis. It’s hard to compensate for 8 hours of sitting at a desk even if you go to the gym after work.
Even more disturbingly, research shows that people who spend too much time sitting have a higher death rate even if they work out at the gym an hour or more a day. Just because you do formal exercise doesn’t mean you can lounge on the couch the rest of the day. What you do when you’re not formally exercising is important for weight control and for overall health.
It’s time to stop thinking of exercise only as something you do at the gym. The time you spend formally working out makes up only a small portion of your day. What you do the rest of the day counts too. Little things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking far away and walking to your destination, pacing while talking on the phone and walking around the house boosts the amount of non-exercise activity you rack up during the day. Consciously fidgeting, stretching and moving your limbs around counts too. One way to become more conscious of how much you’re moving during the day is to wear a pedometer. Challenge yourself to take more steps even when you’re not at the gym. It’s a good way to stay healthy and keep unwanted pounds at bay.
Layman’s Journal of Hyperplasia Research. “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis”
Endo May 2004. vol. 286, no. 5.