What comes to mind when you hear someone talking about “burning calories”? You’re probably thinking about hours on the treadmill, bicep curls and deadlifts, or the dreaded dieting protocols.
What you may not think about are those 2 blocks you walked from the bus stop, your trip to the local grocery store or sweeping up the sand you brought into your apartment from the beach. What if I told you that simply being aware of what you are doing during the majority of your day could be the piece of the weight loss puzzle you have been missing.
While the “rules” of fat loss and burning calories may seem complex, there’s an even simpler reason why you still might be struggling with weight loss/health. While nutrition plays a massive role in fat loss, learning more about energy expenditure through activity can also help you identify what small changes you can start to implement today to dropping a few extra pounds or jumpstarting a big weight loss journey.
***NERD ALERT NERD ALERT***
Let’s look at how you really burn calories from a scientific point of view. Your metabolism is always working to burn energy. During periods of higher activity, your body will burn more calories than when you are at rest. But even at rest, your body is always expending energy. This daily expenditure is called TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure), which can be organized into 3 different categories.
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR or RMR): the amount of energy your body uses to support functions of your organs and physiological systems. Your BMR accounts for 60-75% of your total TDEE!!! While all of your body’s systems need energy to work properly, your brain actually uses 1/5 of the total BMR!!! See, there is some science to why you don’t think as clearly when you’re hungry and why it is so important to have a healthy breakfast before starting work/school!
- Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): the energy the body uses to convert food into more energy or to move it to a location to be stored for use at a later time. This accounts for approximately 10% of your TDEE and is also some of the reason why nutrition is so important to the complete weight loss story. Not eating enough? Your body’s metabolism will actually slow down not only to conserve energy but also because the supply of energy (food) is limited and your body has nothing to convert. Without the supply of energy (and nothing being stored) your body will start to source energy from…muscle cells. All in all, starving yourself on a super super low calorie diet for extended amounts of time is NEVER the solution to weight loss!
- Thermic Effect of Physical Activity (TEPA): the energy you burn from activity. This accounts for the remaining 15-30% of TDEE and also includes excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) which is the amount of energy the body burns after exercise to return the body to its normal state. TEPA can be divided into 2 parts: A) Planned Activity and B) Spontaneous Activity. With planned activity you can expect to burn hundreds of calories at a time and with smart programming it can provide you with several other benefits beyond weight loss. Spontaneous activity is anytime you perform some type of movement such as standing up from a seated position or running to catch a bus. This is referred to as NEAT (Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis) and can play a significant role in helping to maximize the total amount of calories burned in one day.
Now that you have been hit with a lot of acronyms, let’s focus on the idea of NEAT. While that 30min of planned exercise is important for many reasons, what a lot of people forget about is what they are doing with the other 15.5+hrs of the day…this is where NEAT fits in.
Studies have looked at daily energy expenditure over various age groups and have found that on average you are the most active you will ever be at 6 years old! For anyone with young kids, this makes complete sense and I guess just more proof to why Kindergarten might truly be the best year of your life.
From the age of 6-11 your daily activity levels decrease. A lot of speculation has been made as to why you see such a decrease in activity, schools are developed to have kids sitting in desks/chairs, decrease in funding in schools usually means the physical activity department gets cut first, and increase in technology and screen time, etc. From pre-teenager to teenager it drops even lower (again most likely due to increases in screen time whether that be from computers, to iPads, to phones, to game systems etc). As a mom to both a 5 year old and 12 year old, I can attest that this is very accurate, and that’s even having a 12 year old that participates in multiple sports.
Good news, in your 20’s the activity levels increase again!!! Interestingly enough, this wasn’t related to an increase in 20 year olds joining a gym etc, but more to do with an increase in daily responsibilities.
Your 20’s means, for some, that you have moved out of the house and might even be in university. This means now you are walking to and from classes, taking more public transport, doing the grocery shopping, doing your own cleaning, etc all of which are considered NEAT activities and therefore increasing your daily energy expenditure.
From 30’s on you can start to see a decrease again. The number one factor to this decrease, your job! Around this age most people were starting to work 9-5 or longer where they spent the majority of their time behind a desk…sitting. When they got home, they were so drained that they admitted to spending the majority of their evenings sitting in front of a TV, computer or device.
Bottom Line: this study showed that how we are spending the majority of our day had the biggest affect on our daily energy expenditure, way more of an affect than going to the gym daily. So what does this mean for the average 25+ year old? No, I’m not saying you should kick your gym habits to the curb and just be more aware of how much you are moving daily. As I mentioned before, a smart exercise program has so many more benefits than burning calories (as well is a very time efficient way to increase your total energy expenditure). But, if you are going to the gym and then being sedentary all day and still wondering why you aren’t losing the weight, looking at your daily non-exercise activity might be the answer.
Here are some tips on how you can start increasing your NEAT (you can also see below chart for how these changes affect calories burned):
- Make appointments to move! Whether you have a desk job or just collapse on the couch in the evening as soon as you get home, you need to establish a routine to train yourself to get up and move more during your day/night. Set a small timer to go off on your phone every hour reminding you to move. Every hour you can get up and walk to the restroom, refill your water, just stand up and take a quick stretch, do some seated exercises (calf raises, leg raises, knee lifts etc), during a commercial break do a few jumping jacks…bottom line just move, even if it’s just brief. This will not only boost energy and help burn calories but also can help decrease stiffness that comes from sitting for prolonged amounts of time.
- Get a pedometer and start adding in steps! The US Department of Health suggests that you should take 10,000 steps per day. Using a pedometer, you can track where you are right now and start to add in steps towards that daily goal. Some ways to add in some steps might be: finding a parking space further from your building, taking public transportation instead of a taxi since a taxi typically drops you off right at the door and public transportation requires a bit more walking, getting off the bus or train one stop before your stop to add in even more steps, taking the stairs, take calls while walking around, take walking meetings, stand up for a quick stretch every time you press send on an email, taking a walk after you eat (bonus, this also helps in digestion),etc.
- Get involved in the cleaning! Make your own bed in the morning, doing the laundry, sweeping and/or vacuuming, helping pick up toys (*bonus* turn it into a game or do lunges in between picking up a piece of lego and putting it in the box….better yet, turn the music up loud and dance while you are cleaning!)
- Limit delivery options! In Hong Kong specifically, you can have just about everything delivered. If it’s possible, walk to do your grocery shopping and walk to pick up your lunch/dinner instead of having it delivered. Get rid of conveniences that aren’t necessary when you have the time to go pick it up yourself.
- Have kids? Play with them! Not only does this increase your daily energy but playing also boosts your neural activity and cognition and increases brain function. I’ve already said how a child 6 years old or below expend the most daily energy, so join them and increase yours along the way.
- Invest in a standing desk or use a yoga ball at your desk! Taking away even the desk chair for a few minutes every hour can have huge affects on your daily energy expenditure.
To finish off a little more MATH….
1lb of fat = approximately 3,500 calories worth of energy
If you only increase NEAT by 200 calories (walking about 2miles over the course of the day) while decreasing daily calories by 300 by making healthier choices (equivalent of one 12oz soda and a small bag of chips) over 7 days you would reach 3,500calories burned (1lb!) and could be well on your way to your weight loss goals with just these small changes!