Neat | Non exercise activity thermogenesis and why you should fidget more
Research suggests that people are more or less likely to gain weight when they overeat – people don’t all gain weight in the same way, uniformly. More specifically, the activation of non exercise activity thermogenesis occurs to a greater extent in some individuals, when they overeat, such that it becomes protective of them becoming obese. When the individual begins consuming more calories than they expend, an increase in neat (activity not calssed as exercise) ensures that these additional calories are not ‘stored’ (as fat tissue) – in effect, they remain lean despite overeating.
Neat definition: Neat stands for non exercise activity thermogenesis, and contributes to the total number of calories we burn/expend on a daily basis. This is in addition to basal metabolic rate (bmr), volitional physical activity (exercise), and the thermic effect of feeding (TEF). Simply put, we burn calories by being and maintaining ‘us’; through exercise; through digesting and storing the products of the food we eat; AND, through neat. An example of neat would be fidgeting, or maintaining our posture while sitting. It’s classed as ‘activity’, it burn calories, but it’s not really exercise.
More importantly, it seems that this component of energy expenditure is the key modulator of whether someone gains weight or remains lean when they overeat or are overfed.
Non exercise activity
In THIS STUDY, 16 individuals were overfed by 1000 calories each day, over an 8 week period. They then had their component parts of energy expenditure – bmr, tef, neat – as well as weight/fat storage, measured.
It turns out that roughly two-thirds of the participants increase in daily energy expenditure was due to an increase in neat. On average, individuals expended 336 calories per day more in neat, which represented two thirds of the overall increase in daily energy expenditure. On an individual level, this ranged from -98 to +692. In addition, in all 16 individuals, fat gain ranged from 0.36 kg to 4.23 kg
To quote from the research article:
As humans overeat, those with effective activation of NEAT can dissipate the excess energy so that it is not available for storage as fat, whereas those with lesser degrees of NEAT activation will likely have greater fat gain and be predisposed to develop obesity
In other words, some people respond to overfeeding with a significant increase in non exercise activity thermogenesis; they fidget more, they keep their posture better, for longer, they move their limbs more. Whilst on the surface this can appear superfluous, it appears as though over the course of the day this can amount to a very meaningful figure. In fact, the researchers suggested that in the person who displayed the largest increase in non exercise activity, this was the equivalent of walking for 15 minutes per hour, for each hour of waking hours!
In summary, the people who you know and hang out with, and appear to eat like a horse and not put on weight – perhaps their neat activation is much higher than yours – maybe they fidget more than you do. Conversely, if you’re the type of person who overeats and puts on weight immediately, then your neat activation is perhaps way lower. There appears to be a genetic link here too, so choose your parents wisely. Moreover, if you’re attempting to lose weight, don’t simply focus on the 45 minutes per day you spend inside the gym. The other 23 hours and 15 minutes, minus sleeping, represent a decent chunk of time to increase mild activity such as standing at your desk or walking between appointments. Lastly, neat most likely represents a large contributor to adaptive thermogenesis, which typically occurs when people are attempting to lose, or gain, a substantial amount of weight.