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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and Weight Loss

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and Weight Loss

Reading Time: 5 minutes


DATE: 2022-04-22

One of the most common goals for personal training clients is weight loss. Your exercise plan offers hope that this is the time they will lower their body weight once and for all. Taking the time to also teach them about non-exercise activity thermogenesis gives them another tool for weight loss success.

What Is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis?

Non-exercise energy activity thermogenesis or NEAT refers to the energy expended on activities that aren’t related to basic biological functions or exercise. 

Walking to the mailbox, for instance, increases energy expenditure. But you’d be hard-pressed to call this physical activity exercise. And it certainly isn’t a bodily function that increases calorie burn, such as respiration or blood circulation. (This type of energy expenditure is known as your basal metabolic rate.)

How NEAT Helps with Weight Loss

Losing weight is all about energy expenditure. You have to consume fewer calories than you use to lower your weight. Conversely, if your calorie intake is higher than your body needs, you gain weight. And an energy balance (when calories in equals calories out) leads to weight maintenance

NEAT contributes to weight loss by increasing energy expenditure. It tips the equation by helping the body burn extra calories. Even light physical activity burns more calories than doing nothing at all. 

Some researchers suggest that NEAT can help reduce human obesity. In a 2018 article published in Endotext, the authors explain that non exercise activity would help accomplish this goal by increasing a person’s daily energy expenditure—causing the burn of up to 2,000 calories per day. 

Imagine how much easier it would be for your clients to lose weight if they burned a couple of thousand extra calories each day. Even if their goal isn’t weight loss, a higher total daily energy expenditure would at least help protect against weight gain.

(There are several published research pieces on NEAT and weight loss. A quick search on Google Scholar provides thousands of results, if you want to learn more.)

2 Ways to Measure NEAT 

In an article published in Nutrition Reviews, Dr James Levine shares that there are two ways to measure NEAT. 

The first is to calculate total energy expenditure. Then you subtract basal metabolic rate and the thermic effect of food. As mentioned, basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy the body uses for basic biological functions. The thermic effect of food refers to the increased metabolic rate that occurs after eating.

The second way to measure NEAT involves giving each NEAT activity a calculation, then adding them together to come up with the amount of energy expended at the end of the day.

You don’t necessarily have to quantify NEAT to understand the value of increased daily physical activity. However, clients can do this if they’d like. 

For some, keeping a running NEAT tally can motivate them to get and stay moving. This is especially helpful for clients who have a sedentary lifestyle. It is also beneficial to obese individuals who may be limited in how much they can exercise.

Monitoring NEAT might even help clients who are working out and not losing weight. It can give them the little physical activity push they need to get the scale moving again.

Do You Need to Worry About NEAT If You Exercise?

After explaining the value of NEAT for weight loss, clients may wonder if they need to exercise at all. Is structured exercise necessary or can they simply increase their daily activity? Ideally, they want to do both.

Intentional exercise helps improve fitness levels. NEAT activities don’t always have this effect. By combining the two, they get the benefits of each. 

Ways to Increase Non Exercise Physical Activity

What type of non exercise activities help contribute to greater fat loss? Here are a few to consider:

  • Gardening or landscaping. Agricultural tasks can be fairly energy intensive. They require constant physical movement and, in some cases, help to build muscle. The more muscle you have, the higher your calorie burn even while at rest. Encourage clients to get outside and work around their yard. This type of activity can also be incredibly relaxing. That makes it as good for the body mentally as it is for it physically.

  • Cleaning. There’s something about a clean house that clears your mind. But cleaning can also spike your calorie burn. You already know this if you’ve ever worked up a sweat by vacuuming or mopping. It may even help to set up a regular cleaning schedule. Do the dusting on Monday, bathrooms on Tuesday, and so on. This helps space the NEAT increase out over the week. It can also be helpful if you’re tight on time and can’t clean the house all at once.

  • Walk or pace while on the phone. If you have family or friends that like long phone conversations, use this to your advantage. Talk a walk or pace while you talk and it will increase your metabolic rate. Pacing is also low impact. So, this is an option available to someone with joint pain, for instance. You might even notice that this increase in activity helps improve your mood.

  • Fidgeting. The great thing about a fidgeting activity is that you can do it anywhere. For instance, if a client is prone to prolonged sitting, they can move their ankles in circles. If they’re standing in line at the store, they can continue to shuffle from side to side. It doesn’t matter so much what they do, just that they keep moving. (Fidgeting is also a good way to burn anxious physical energy, providing this added benefit!)

  • Taking the dog to the park. Pets benefit from getting out and running around. So, why not take them to the park and let them expend some energy while increasing your NEAT at the same time? Throw them a ball, frisbee, or stick during a game of catch. Or run around with them a bit, playing a game of tag. You’ll improve your relationship with your pooch while getting closer to your weight loss goal.

  • Standing versus sitting. The body uses more energy to stand than it does to sit. This may seem like a minor change, but the effects can add up over time. Plus, sitting a lot is not good from a health standpoint. Some even refer to sitting as the new smoking. This is because sedentary behavior increases the risk of disease. Encourage clients to stand as often as they can. If they do desk work, getting a standing desk can help. 

  • Skip the elevator or escalator. Some people use the stairs for intentional exercise. (Stair stepper anyone?) But stairs can also be used as a form of non exercise activity. If you work on the second or third floor, skip the elevator each day and take the stairs instead. When at a shopping mall or airport, forego the escalator, again, opting for the stairs. 

Encourage clients to actively look for ways to get spontaneous physical activity. Every bit of movement they do will get them closer to their weight loss goal.

Certainly, losing weight isn’t easy. And clients will look to you for help, even outside of exercise recommendations. Gain credibility with these clients by earning your Weight Management Specialist Certification. This course also teaches you how to help clients create healthy lifestyle behaviors that stick.

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