“I can’t help it, I just have a slow metabolism!” is an excuse we hear time and time again for why some people find it much harder to be thin than others. But your metabolism might not be to blame since most of us actually have similar metabolic rates that are proportionate to our lean body mass. Recent evidence suggests that the secret to easily maintaining a healthy weight lies in something called NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
Where your energy goes
At the core of it all, we all eat food in order to provide enough energy to fuel our daily activities. But how exactly are these calories expended throughout a day? By sleeping, sitting around, and simply existing, you’re already using up approximately 60% of your daily energy requirement, known as your basal metabolic rate. There’s not much you can do to change your basal metabolic rate, because it depends almost entirely on your lean body mass.
If you get up to grab some food to eat, you’re going to use up another 10 – 15% of your energy to digest and absorb it (what scientists like to call the ‘thermic ‘effect of food’).
Any additional amounts of energy that your body requires in a day depends on your level of ‘activity thermogenesis’, or simply put, how active you are throughout that day. This includes intentional exercise that you do, like those 500 calories you burned at spin class or during your weekend hike. But because you can only spend so much time every day on exercising, calories that you burn from doing daily activities could add up to an equally significant amount. This includes walking to your office, carrying groceries, cooking, even just fidgeting with your pencil or playing guitar.
How much energy is used for NEAT?
Because NEAT encompasses such a wide range of activities, its percentage of total daily energy expenditure depends very much on how active or sedentary you are during a normal day. An office worker who drives to work and then sits at their desk for 8 hours is obviously going to have a lower NEAT than a teacher who has to walk around the classroom and chase after students all day. According to one study, NEAT can account for anything between 15% and over 50% of your day’s energy usage, depending on lifestyle (Levine, 2003).
If you’re looking to lose or maintain weight, the NEAT-er the better! Standing ont eh MTR, playing with your kids, and climbing a few flights of stairs on your way home could help you burn an extra few hundred calories per day. Even fidgeting is enough to increase your energy expenditure above resting levels by 20 – 40% (Levine, 2003).
Even if you’re not looking to lose weight, sitting still for hours at a time can wreak havoc on your health in the long run. Longitudinal studies have consistently shown that the more hours you spend sitting, the higher your risks are of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even shorter life spans (Young et. al, 2016). The bottom line is, anything can be beneficial as long as you’re not sitting still!
Levine, J. A. (2003). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society,62(03), 667-679. doi:10.1079/pns2003281
Young, D. R., Hivert, M., Alhassan, S., Camhi, S. M., Ferguson, J. F., Katzmarzyk, P. T., . . . Yong, C. M. (2016). Sedentary Behavior and Cardiovascular Morbidity and Mortality: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation,134(13). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000440