#49: 🔥NEAT: The Hidden Calorie Burner
Harnessing Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis for Health
Each week I address topics on longevity, psychedelics and innovation suggested by you. Here’s what you missed in August.
💬 In this note:
🔥 NEAT: The Hidden Calorie Burner
📚 Lessons in Chemistry
⚡️ Snoop Dogg in Dog Years
🔥 NEAT: The Hidden Calorie Burner
Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist who pioneered the research on NEAT while at the Mayo Clinic, defined NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) in 2004 as:
“...the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting”
We are well-aware that exercise is an important part of staying healthy and that purposeful physical exercise can burn hundreds of calories at a time.
However NEAT can also help play a significant role in maximizing the total amount of calories burned in a single day.
NEAT is everything that you do that is not considered purposeful exercise. I like to think of it as:
Exercise = intentional and purposeful exercise that breaks a sweat
NEAT = all other activity
NEAT, even in avid exercisers, is the main contributor to the majority of daily calorie burn.
We are in a NEAT shortage
In developed countries, a vast majority of the population gets zero to negligible amounts of NEAT. 😱
In middle to high-income countries, urbanization has been associated with decreased physical activity.
Developed countries have tons of sedentary cues and many services are designed to optimize convenience such as drive-thru restaurants and banks, along with escalators and motorized walkways.
In the United States, schools are built beyond walking distance of the community they serve, suburbs are built without sidewalks, and city streets are often unsafe for walking.
We’ve engineered our communities in the U.S. for driving over walking.
Our daily activity is slowing down and we are gaining weight along with it.
How to calculate NEAT
To calculate NEAT, we need to understand a few terms about our metabolism.
First, is total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Your body is always expending energy, but how you burn energy and expend calories is your TDEE.
TDEE can be organized into three categories.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR)
BMR is the amount of energy the body uses to support the functions of the organs and physiological systems. This comprises 60-75% of a person’s TDEE.
The three organs most responsible for burning calories are the liver, the brain and skeletal muscle, which burn 27%, 19% and 18% of the BMR respectively.
The brain burns about 20% of your BMR, which explains why we can’t think as clearly when we are hungry.
Thermic effect of food (TEF)
TEF is the energy the body uses to convert food into more energy or to move it to a location to be stored (as fat) for use at a later time. It makes up about 10% of daily energy expenditure.
Thermic effect of physical activity (TEPA)
TEPA accounts for the remaining energy expenditure - about 15-30% of our daily energy output. Included in this number is the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which is the amount of energy the body burns after exercise to return to its normal state.
TEPA can be two different types of activity, planned exercise and spontaneous non-exercise activities that occur every time you perform a physical exertion, like standing up from sitting or climbing a flight of stairs.
To estimate NEAT, you subtract the “basal metabolic rate (BMR) + thermic effect of food (TEF)” from your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
The final equation
NEAT = TDEE - (BMR + TEF)
NEAT Can Promote Weight Loss
If losing weight is your primary reason for exercising, NEAT is an essential component of that objective.
One pound of body fat can provide approximately 3,500 calories worth of energy.
Increasing NEAT by 200 calories (about the equivalent of walking 2 miles) while also making healthier nutritional choices to reduce caloric intake by 300 calories (the equivalent of a 12-ounce soda) equals about 500 calories a day.
If you do that seven days a week, you will quickly burn the amount of calories necessary to eliminate a pound of fat.
Making an effort to change your daily habits by adding more NEAT along with reducing overall caloric intake creates a foundation for long-lasting weight-loss success.
The U.S. Department of Health has been promoting 150 minutes of physical activity per week as an achievable goal for physical activity. This goal often gets translated into 10,000 steps per day as a way to achieve that exercise.
This is not enough activity to combat our sedentary lifestyle. We need much more than that.
NEAT should not be considered a substitute for more structured bouts of intense physical exercise - this is where I think the U.S. Department of Health guidelines are being misinterpreted.
Doing the bare minimum is exactly that, it’s enough to keep your health from declining, but it’s not enough to keep your health continually improving.
I believe we need at least 150 minutes a week of deliberate exercise that raises our heart rate and causes us to sweat. In addition to that, we need 10,000 steps a day of NEAT.
The end result is the equivalent of ~15,000 steps per day and approximately 30-45 active minutes per day.
Intense exercise has its own well-established benefits and revving up NEAT for the sedentary and the already active can be very beneficial.
These small NEAT behaviors can accumulate and result in a lot of energy burn.
The Power of Fidgeting: How Small Movements Impact Calorie Burn
Sitting at the computer only burns 5-7% more calories than if you were laying down to rest. However, excessive fidgeting while seated can bring that up a few percentage points.
If you move around to fold clothes or iron, you can bring that energy burn up to 15%. The key here is that the energy burn really accelerates the moment you start to walk.
Strolling at 1.5 to 2 miles per hour, the speed people usually walk while shopping, can double your metabolic rate.
It's even possible to increase your metabolic rate by chewing gum, which burns about 20 calories an hour above your resting metabolic rate.
Dr. James Levine’s original calculations from 2004 are shown in the chart below.
Dr. Levine gives the example of coming home from work, sitting down and watching TV for the rest of the night. If that’s your entire evening, your NEAT could end up at just 30 calories.
Taking up household projects that force you to move around could alternatively bring up your NEAT by 700 calories in the same time frame.
The core message is simple:
Add in movement when and where you can.
Do something that gets you walking around when you would otherwise be sitting.
Can We Unconsciously Switch on our NEAT?
Dr. Levine performed a study on 16 lean people who were fed an extra 1,000 calories a day for two months. He found that their weight gain varied considerably and that levels of NEAT directly predicted how well each participant was able to avoid putting on fat.
“People who have the capacity to burn off calories and remain thin are people who can switch on their NEAT,” Levine says.
Meaning some people have a better ability to sense when they take in extra calories and this may set in motion an unconscious drive to move more.
The long term benefits of NEAT
Moving your body for your entire life is all the more important as we age.
In a study of 300 older adults, scientists tracked energy expenditure from their physical activity over two weeks. They found that a snapshot of daily energy expenditure could help predict the chances of being alive or dead 7 to 10 years later.
For every 287 calories a person burned per day, there was a 30% lower chance of dying.
It turned out that those adults who were less likely to die didn’t exercise more than others. They had higher NEAT in their lives.
It’s movement, not exercises that make the difference.
If you feel like you need more NEAT in your life, here are a few tips to boost it.
5 Ways to Boost your NEAT
Standing: A growing body of evidence shows that sitting for too long can be hazardous to your health. Simply standing is one form of NEAT that can increase your calorie expenditure. Once you're standing it’s easy to walk around or take a brief stroll outside. Sometimes getting out of the chair is the hardest part. Try a standing desk or take calls while walking.
Daily steps: Setting a daily step goal can be a reminder about how much you are moving. All wearables nowadays have a step counter so it’s easy to see your daily movement. Steps are an important component of NEAT.
Walk or cycle for transportation: Choosing to walk or cycle as part of your daily commute can burn significant amounts of energy. Opt to walk for your errands instead of using the car if you are able. I have a rule that I always walk if my destination is less than a 25 minute walk. This allows me to walk an additional 30-60 minutes a day.
Housework: Doing additional tasks around the house or putting a little more effort into daily activities can increase your NEAT. We know how different we clean in the 10 minutes before guests come over versus a regular tidy up. If you work from home, try breaking up the day with household chores.
Playing with your kids (or pets): In the age of apps for everything, playing is an easy way to increase NEAT. Play can also help boost neural activity and cognition.
Levine says that “The power of NEAT is that it’s available to absolutely everybody. We can all do it and we can all do it a little bit more.”
📚 Book of the Week
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.
5 / 5 Stars
This is a reread, I loved it so much. This story is hilarious, inspiring and joyful, and I love this trend of books about women in STEM.
The main character is a chemist in the 1960s who finds herself kicked out of her academic laboratory, by a senior scientist who took credit for her work, and suddenly she’s the host of a live TV cooking show where she teaches America the chemistry of cooking.
I’m posting about it again because…
I just learned that Lessons in Chemistry will premiere as a series on Apple TV+ October 13, 2023!!
If you’re like me and have to read the book before the movie or show comes out…
THIS IS YOUR WARNING.
⚡️ Check This Out
The reddit comments are gold.
He’s not turning 60 this year, only 46.
Don’t worry, we’re not THAT old…yet