How to Leverage NEAT to Help Fitness Clients Burn More Calories Throughout the Day

Teaching clients how to leverage NEAT may be the missing piece to the puzzle of weight loss they have been searching for. Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy we expend each day unrelated to exercise, sleeping, and eating. NEAT “ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting. Even trivial physical activities increase metabolic rate substantially and it is the cumulative impact of a multitude of exothermic actions that culminate in an individual’s daily NEAT” (Levine, 2002).

Truthfully, NEAT makes up a considerable amount of a person’s non-resting energy expenditure. Is it enough to elicit weight loss? Maybe not in absence of some other behavior change efforts. But is it enough to influence how many calories the body burns on a daily basis? Absolutely.

NEAT varies from person to person and occupation to occupation. For example, clients who hold manual labor-type jobs have higher NEAT expenditures than other clients who have primarily sedentary or desk-jobs (Levine, 2002). In fact, the importance of NEAT in its role of weight gain or loss is further emphasized by Kotz and Levine (2005). “Mounting evidence suggests that NEAT is critical in determining a person’s susceptibility to body fat deposition and is a major factor in human obesity” (Kotz & Levine, 2005).

A Closer Look at Metabolism

As we know, metabolism is the sum total of all chemical processes in the human body. What makes up metabolism is a bit more complicated. Let’s take a closer look.

RMR, or resting metabolic rate, makes up about 60–75% of total daily energy expenditure, which is considerable. The second part, TEF, or the thermic effect of food contributes about 10% of total daily energy expenditure. Lastly, we have the thermic effect of physical activity or TEPA which comprises 15–30% of total daily energy expenditure. TEPA includes exercise, physical activity, and NEAT (or all of those other movements such as fidgeting, standing, and moving about) (Wang, Heshka, & Gallagher, et al., 2000). Let’s put some numbers to this pie chart.

For example, say your client’s total daily needs is about 2,500 calories. We can estimate that the breakdown based on those three components of metabolism look like this:

Why is NEAT so important?

And how can we help our clients leverage this aspect of metabolism to maximize caloric expenditure and contribute to an overall caloric deficit if weight loss is their primary outcome goal? While it contributes to a much smaller portion of total energy expenditure in a day, helping clients adopt strategies to capitalize on this aspect of caloric burn can help shift their daily energy expenditure by a considerable amount — thus supporting a negative caloric balance.

The Problem with Predictive Equations

The solution isn’t quantitative in nature. This might be a surprise because that’s how we estimate caloric needs and values, right? Through a numbers approach. But here’s the issue with predictive formulas — they aren’t 100% accurate and therefore clients cannot consider the result to be representative of what their body needs.

In our industry we typically use something like the Harris and Benedict (once considered the gold standard) or the Mifflin-St. Jeor (which is more accurate). Further, we can use formulas such as the Katch-McArdle or Cunningham (both factor in body composition). With any formula, they can be under- or overestimations of caloric needs. Herein lies the issue.

Let’s go back to our earlier example of 2,500 calories of energy required a day. Using a formula may have something near a 20% error. What does this mean in numbers? Twenty percent of 2,500 is 500 calories. This means a predictive equation may underestimate needs by 500 or overestimate by 500. That’s huge when we examine this longitudinally.

If the accurate RMR calculation were to be 2,500 but a predictive formula overestimated by 500 calories a day, the math looks like this: 500 calories beyond the actual need x 365 days in a year = 182,500 calories extra over the course of the year. Take 182,500/3,500 calories in a pound and you get about 52 pounds in a year. That is a considerable amount to gain.

How to Leverage NEAT

This is not to say that numbers don’t have a place in our work with clients — the absolutely and undeniably do. But we can gain more insight if we look at this NEAT opportunity qualitatively. There are two big take-home messages we want to communicate clearly to clients.

First, continuous and accumulated movement is important (let’s avoid the active couch potato scenario). Second, we don’t necessarily want or need or clients to carve out additional time for more exercise. Instead, we want to encourage them to do the things they already do but just a bit differently. This is how we can leverage NEAT.

The Role of a Reflective Log

Many fitness professionals already use some sort of log or record with their clients for evaluating exercise and food habits. We can add a second component to that existing log that examines general activities done in 30-minute increments. They can be grouped like the following:

Clients can tally the number of hours they spend each day in these types of activities and compare and contrast standing to sitting hours. (Hamilton, Healy, Dunstand, et al., 2008). Encourage clients to do this for a period of 3–7 days. If three days are selected, be sure it includes one weekend day. The point of the log is that it should reflect the consistency of general activities.

Once you, as the fitness professional, review the log, you can coach the client towards solutions to shift their ratio sitting to standing and moving about to leverage NEAT. An example of how this might look is below.

You can also develop a point system for clients if working with numbers is easier for them to calculate and absorb. This method would allow for a quantifiable outcome.

Whatever approach you take, it will always remain important to collaborate with your clients to seek solutions for sedentary time with the goal of shifting the ratio of seated to standing time in an effort to burn more calories. In other words, ask your clients open-ended questions such as:

Even burning an extra 50 calories a day can lead to big results in the long run. Next time you’re working with a client, teach them to leverage NEAT by encouraging them to take an objective look at their sedentary time and find new ways to move more and sit less throughout the day.

References

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12468415/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16475414/

Hamilton MT, Healy GN, Dunstan DW, et al., (2008). Too little exercise and too much sitting: Inactivity physiology and the need for new recommendations on sedentary behavior. Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 2:292–298

Wang Z, Heshka S, Gallagher D, et al., (2000). Resting energy expenditure-fat-free mass relationship: new insights provided by body composition modeling. American Journal of Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism, 279:E539-E545.

Originally published on the NFPT Blog Site.

Passionate college educator, writer, and health and fitness professional. I am an NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialist, ACE Health Coach, & Pn1.