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NEAT, exercise myths and how to really burn more calories and manage your weight

NEAT, exercise myths and how to really burn more calories and manage your weight


There are so many reasons to exercise. It lowers our risk of many diseases, builds muscle mass and boosts our mood, but, and this is a big but, exercise on its own does really not help people lose weight.
Why? In a nutshell the studies seem to show that there is either a) the food compensation factor (ie ‘I’ve exercised and therefore deserve a croissant/moka latte (!)’ or b) our bodies naturally compensate by moving less after a bout of intense exercise. This is known as the phenomenon ‘Active Couch Potatoes’!

So, what can we do about this? For the food compensation factor it is worth underlining that unless you really have exercised at a high intensity for over an hour, you generally do not need to eat straight after a gym session. Your body will naturally refuel its glycogen (stored energy) over the course of the day with normal meals.

As for moving less generally, this is where your Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) comes into play. This is the activity we expend on daily living, the non-exercise movement which we incorporate into our day.

A little reminder about calories and activity. The calories we burn at rest, our basal metabolic rate (ie if we were to lie around all day) account for about 60% of our daily calorie expenditure. The other 40% of energy is used to digest food (about 10%) with the remaining 30% of the calories burnt in the form of scheduled physical activity and NEAT.

Average Women – 2000 calorie daily intake

1200 calories – Basal Metabolic Rate
200 calories – Digestion and Absorption of Nutrients
600 calories – Movement – Exercise and NEAT
Total 2000 calories

Dr James Levine is accredited with the research on NEAT and his research found that NEAT was actually far more important for burning calories than scheduled exercise sessions. Out of those 600 calories for ‘movement’, the breakdown is very (very!) roughly 80:20 – 480 calories for NEAT and 120 calories for exercise. According to Dr Levine, the people majority of people exercise for less than 2 hours a week which means the calories burnt from exercise is only 100 calories per day. Note too that machines in gyms tend to completely overstate how many calories you may have burnt…!


Jean finishes work, spends 45 minutes in the gym and then spends the rest of the evening in front of the television.

Jacques finishes work, goes straight home, spends an hour gardening, spends a further hour sorting out his garden shed before falling into bed.

Who has actually burnt the most calories? Jacques!

If we want to burn more calories, then we have to factor NEAT into our daily lives. While some of us may struggle to schedule in exercise sessions, aiming to move more in our daily lives might possibly be more achievable.

Ways of boosting your NEAT include:

  1. Limiting the time spent sitting down to no more than 1 hour a day. Top tip? Try switching your office chair for a pilates ball!
  2. Stand as much as possible. Pace up and down while on the phone or waiting for transport.
  3. Walk as much as possible. Heard of the 10,000 steps? This orginates from Japan where the first pedometers were called “manpo-kei,” 10,000 steps metres. Do you really need to walk 10,000 steps every day? No, but we should be aiming to walk as much as possible. An average 30 minute walk tends to be about 3000 steps. An average person (without exercising) tends to move about 5000 steps, so factoring in a daily 30 minute walk will increase this to 8000 steps.
  4. Fidget! Move your feet, arms and legs while sitting down. Have you noticed how people who are naturally a bit fidgety tend to be able to manage their weight?
  5. Recognise that all the activities that we may find (slightly!) tedious – cleaning, gardening etc are actually really good ways of increasing our ‘NEAT’.
  6. Play with your children – kick a ball around, chase them round the garden etc.

It is very true that we cannot ‘out exercise’ a bad diet, but we just might be able to defeat it with a bit more ‘NEAT’!

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