You probably know someone your size who eats vast amounts and struggles to put on weight, while you get fat eating less. Most people would say your friend has a fast metabolism—ie, a body that simply uses more energy to exist.
Well, it turns out that the differences between you and your friend are unlikely due to metabolism. What’s more, you can burn just as much energy as they can.
There are multiple aspects accounting for the energy we burn every day. For our purposes here we can break them down to three categories:
- Basal metabolism – the energy required to power all your internal processes and simply exist.
- Exercise – voluntary and deliberate physical activity.
- Non exercise activity thermogenesis (referred to as NEAT) – this is basically everything else including moving yourself through the world, unconscious and automatic movement.
Control of Body Composition
The general assumption is that we’re stuck with our metabolism, and that control of body fat hinges on exercise and management of food intake.
Let’s consider our metabolically gifted friend again.
Contrary to popular wisdom, basal metabolism just doesn’t vary between people very much.
From examine.com (backed up with scientific citations):
Metabolic rate does vary, and technically there could be large variance. However, statistically speaking it is unlikely the variance would apply to you. The majority of the population exists in a range of 200-300kcal from each other and do not possess hugely different metabolic rates.
To be sure, outliers do exist—there are people whose bodies naturally burn significantly more or less at rest than everyone else. But they’re unusual. Statistically this means our friend’s metabolic rate is probably pretty similar to our own (given similar body size and composition).
So if we allow for a normal amount of exercise, what accounts for the ability of some to churn through calories?
Of course the only thing left on the list: NEAT. Yep, it’s that simple—they just move more.
The Power of NEAT
This study measured how much energy people burned when lying, sitting, and standing still. Then they added fidgeting to the latter two conditions and remeasured.
Compared to lying still, average energy expenditure increased:
- 4% sitting still.
- 13% standing still.
- 54% sitting while fidgeting.
- 94% standing while fidgeting.
In this study people were overfed 1000 Calories per day.
There was a 10-fold difference in how much fat people gained.
Why? Again, most of the difference was attributed to NEAT. In people who gained the least, the overfeeding stimulated a higher willingness to move.
Both of those studies yielded eye-opening results. We’re not talking about running a marathon here, just mindless activity, but the increase in energy burn was massive.
So what, you might say. All this NEAT stuff is interesting, but it doesn’t apply to you because you don’t naturally have that urge to move—your body seems quite content to sit on the couch completely immobile.
Well, we don’t have to passively accept the situation if we’re not one of those people who spontaneously move a lot. With a bit of behavior change and habit development, it’s actually pretty easy to generate a higher energy expenditure.
Sitting Vs Standing
If you spend your day sitting, probably the best change you can make is standing instead.
From this page, based on the table of the energy cost of various activities per unit of body weight, consider a 70 kg person (roughly 155 lb) working at a desk job for eight hours. Here’s the difference in energy expenditure between sitting and standing.
- Sitting: 1008 Calories
- Standing: 1344 Calories
That’s 336 extra Calories burned, which is about the equivalent of a half hour run.
You don’t need to spend thousands on a fancy standing desk. Personally, I’ve elevated my computer on a box that contained an online order my girlfriend made. Not the most elegant solution, but the rewards more than make up for it.
In addition to standing, I move my legs back and forward alternately while I work. The jiggling burns more Calories, but it’s also much more comfortable than merely standing in one position.
Based on the studies above, this fidgeting part is powerful, and of particular importance to anyone not able to stand while they work (probably not the best look if you’re a bus driver or pilot, for instance).
Even if you can’t stand, you can still burn more energy by getting into the habit of jiggling your legs and moving as much as you can within the constraints of your situation.
Avoid the Easy Option
Here are some more ideas. Whenever you practically can:
- Sit instead of lie.
- Stand instead of sit.
- Get into the habit of jiggling your legs when sitting and standing.
- Walk instead of stand.
- Walk instead of drive.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Park a bit further away from your destination to walk more even when you do have to drive.
During a Diet
One of the main components of diet-induced metabolic adaptation—ie, the reduction of energy expenditure the deeper into the diet you get—is the decrease of spontaneous movement, both conscious and unconscious. You just feel like doing less.
Simply being aware of this and consciously fighting it with the above strategies goes a long way towards ensuring steady progress during fat loss.
As overly sensational as all the “sitting is the new smoking” headlines are, science shows that sedentary lives of inactivity are unhealthy.
Transforming ourselves into calorie-burning machines for the purpose of expediting cosmetic goals and allowing the consumption of more food is one thing. But consciously building more movement into our lives has a much more profound effect on general health, potentially leading to lower disease risk and a longer life.
Wake Up Call
It’s so ingrained in us that metabolic rate is hugely variable between people. I sure used to take it for granted, and I thought my bases were covered with the hour or so I worked out. For the rest of the time I was basically happy to sit.
I thought suggestions like parking a bit further away when you do your shopping were ridiculous, and just second-rate options for people who couldn’t be bothered to exercise.
And if I was deep in a diet with no energy, I’d succumb to the urge to move less and less, again happy thinking that I’d burn plenty of energy during my workout.
But we have the scientific data, and I’ve had to eat my words. All the little bits of extra activity mount up to have a huge effect, and any way you can squeeze more movement into your life should be embraced.
Learning how significant NEAT can be was humbling, and caused a big rethink. Through the development of new habits, we can harness it to make fat loss easier, and allow the consumption of a bit more food during long term maintenance. More importantly, the extra activity could lead to lower disease risk, and even extend our lives.
Feedback is very welcome, It’d be great to hear your thoughts and about your experiences. Just use the comment form below, or send me an email.
If you enjoyed this, take a look at Post-Diet Plan: Fix Metabolic Adaptation, Eat Normally, Stay Lean, which is about rebuilding metabolism and avoiding fat rebound in the time after fat loss (basically a plan to keep your results, but eat much more than during the diet).
Thank you so much for reading.