Don’t you just hate the guys who stay lean year-round, and can get shredded in a matter of weeks?
How about those macronators who seem to be able to diet to single-digit body fat while eating 350 grams of carbs a day.
It seems like these guys have won the genetic lottery, and don’t need to worry too much about grinding away to get in awesome shape – they have it easy. Their fast metabolism allows them to diet without any struggle, and keep their abs in a bulking phase.
Or does it?
Is it really their metabolism, or is something else at play?
NEAT is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
It’s the calories you burn through involuntary actions like twiddling your thumbs while sitting down or tapping your foot while you’re at your desk, as well as those burned from everyday actions you don’t think about too much.
It’s obvious that some folk have high levels of NEAT – construction workers for instance, or Police officers on their feet all day. This increased activity adds up to a pretty high calorie burn. But what about people who don’t have jobs like this, and just seem to go through calories like Dan Bilzerian goes through big-breasted women.
What’s their deal?
It’s pretty likely that subconsciously, due to genetics, their NEAT levels are high, and so they turn over more calories every second, of every minute, of every day, and so have a much easier time losing body fat.
Research has shown that NEAT has huge impacts on weight loss (1,2) and that overweight folk typically have lower NEAT levels, while guys who fidget a ton have far greater energy expenditure.
While it may seem insignificant, NEAT adds up.
You can’t do too much about your genetic predisposition to calorie burn through NEAT, as it’s impossible to consciously make yourself do subconscious actions 24/7, but you can find ways to boost your NEAT through other means. (And help you get leaner in the process.
A 2000 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition measured calories burned in different positions compared to lying down. Researchers found that sitting up but staying stationary caused an average 4% increase in energy expenditure, whereas sitting up and fidgeting resulted in a much larger increase of 54%.
Standing motionless led to a 13% increase while standing and fidgeting was a huge 95% increase.
If you added walking into the equation, then walking at 1 mph had a 154% increase over baseline, 2 mph was 202% and 3 mph was 292%. (2)
So simply by changing positions throughout the day, or by spending more time on your feet and moving round, you could double your calorie burn. That seriously starts to add up after a while.
Walking more, getting off the bus a stop earlier on your way to work, or doing some extra yard work sounds like advice given by a rookie personal trainer to an obese woman in her 60s.
But could this increase in slow, gentle activity be the key for bodybuilders and athletes struggling to lose fat?
The trouble with increasing training intensity, frequency and volume to get over a fat loss plateau is that even though you burn more calories during your sessions doing this, your body can fight back by down regulating NEAT.
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Think about it – you train hard, and feel so exhausted afterward, you have to sit down for an hour or two on the couch.
That session may have lasted 60 minutes, and you potentially burned 300 to 400 calories, but in the post-exercise recovery phase, you burned next to nothing.
Had you eased things back slightly, and maybe gone for a walk for two hours rather than hitting up some stair sprints, or doing intervals on the elliptical, you’d have burned the same number of calories, but would feel more able to stay active afterwards. Subconsciously, when you push your cardio sessions super hard, your body compensates for the exertion by lowering your NEAT to aid recovery.
Add to that the fact that the EPOC effect is generally greatly over-stated (3,4) and the case for lower-intensity cardio is getting stronger.
Your body has a limited capacity for recovery.
You only have one recovery tank so to speak, and it’s not a case that you have separate reserves for weight training, high-intensity cardio, low-intensity cardio, NEAT and daily stress.
If you hit it hard in the gym, lift heavy, stimulate your nervous system and cause metabolic stress, then you try to do the same with high-intensity cardio, at some point you’re going to break.
Doing too much high (or even moderate) intensity cardio can impede your recovery from your lifting sessions, which are the real driver in improving body composition. When dieting, you have to fight like hell as it is to retain your muscle and strength anyway, and adding extra cardio into the mix is only going to make it harder.
Higher stress levels have been linked to both the desire to over-eat (5) and with an increase in abdominal fat. (6)
While it might only be cardio, interval training, metabolic circuits and activities like sprinting can cause DOMS and aggravate your joints, meaning potentially that your next weight session you have to lift lighter and do less volume. When in a fat loss phase, maintaining volume is vital if you want to retain muscle, and so indirectly, too much cardio at too high an intensity can impede your progress.
Despite the fact that higher intensity cardio can often do more harm than good, there is still a place for it.
Those more focused on performance, particularly competing in sports, should make the majority of their aerobic activity into interval-style training, dependant on the demands of said sport. If you’re doing cardio while bulking too, then your increased calorie consumption will mean your recovery capabilities are better, and so you may be able to tolerate higher-intensity cardio.
For dieters though, it’s a different matter.
The calories burned from NEAT are no different to the calories burned through higher intensity activity, and while it may take you longer to burn the same amount, both during and after the session, taking a little extra time to do your cardio could save your physique.
If you’re in a calorie deficit, already weight training several times per week, and have a job, family and other commitments, the last thing you need is more stress.
Hence, ramping up your NEAT is a much more effective, muscle-preserving way to burn a few extra calories without sacrificing lean tissue and strength.
You’re not being a pussy by giving up your HIIT sessions on the Stairmaster and dropping out your track sprints, and going for a walk for an hour a couple of times per week instead. Provided calorie burn is the same, you’re almost guaranteed to see better muscle and strength preservation while losing fat.
One tip: Wear an activity monitor or a step counter.
Trying to bump this up gradually is a great way to increase calorie burn and fat loss without you even noticing.
In my last contest prep, between my first and second competitions, I started simply walking to the coffee shop I work from each afternoon, which was around a 25-minute trek each way. Over the course of 8 weeks, I managed to increase my daily calorie intake by around 150, while still dropping 5 pounds.
Just being more active might sound like a really crappy way to get ripped, but so many bodybuilders run themselves into the ground by trying to do crazy amounts of high-intensity cardio when they’re already stressed through diet and training.
There’s no shame in taking things easy when it comes to cardio, and just adding in extra walking or light activity, instead of hammering out 20-minute, gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing, smash and grab sessions.
What would you rather – a false badge of honor from going hard on every single session, but a second place trophy, because you never allowed your recovery tank to fill back up, or the winner’s medal, and the knowledge that you did the smart thing, ditched the HIIT and upped your NEAT instead?
It’s easy, and really doesn’t take much time, energy or thought power, but it WILL get you in better shape.
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