NEAT perspective on cardio and weight-loss

Cardio is considered by the general public as a key driver of fat-loss.

Move more + eat less = lose weight?

Great concept… apparently unless you’re me.

I promise I don’t actually want to die of a premature heart attack. However, I noticed a pattern where the more cardio I was including, the slower my fat loss would progress.

Controlling energy intake from food and including more activity should accelerate weight-loss. In contrast, it was creating more resistance.

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Does unsuccessfully chopping firewood count as cardio?

So what gives?


It appears the answer to my conundrum is quite NEAT, or “non-exercise activity thermogenesis.” (Scientific jargon for the energy while not sleeping, eating or exercising.)

This is the equation for what determines how many total calories your body burns in a day:

Energy Expenditure = Resting Metabolic Rate + Physical Activity + Thermic Effect of Food + Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis

NEAT includes, but is not limited to: walking your dog, dancing while blow drying your hair, washing dishes, shovelling snow and speed walking to Burrito Boyz in 5-inch heels because the Uber is taking too long.

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Although adding cardio increases the physical activity variable, I unconsciously decrease the final variable (NEAT) because I’m too tired to move around mindlessly.

So at the end of the day, I am burning the same, or close to, the same amount of calories even though I am “exercising” more.

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NEAT studies

A 2001 study suggests genetic differences to be at play with respect to increasing or decreasing NEAT. The problem in chronically overweight individuals may be that eating more food does not influence them to move around more, resulting in weight gain.

A 2002 study writes “NEAT increases with overfeeding and decreases with underfeeding.” This could explain why dieting for longer periods of time results in slowed progress.

**If this is the case, it wouldn’t be radical to suggest diet breaks as a way to restore the motivation to increase NEAT.**

A 2007 study notes highly active individuals can burn up to three times more calories than inactive and sedentary individuals. The differences can vary up to 2000 calories/day.

** This may explain why the friend who throws down 3 burger maintains her weight better than you.**

So what now?


Personally, doing intense cardio too frequently discourages me from cleaning, cooking and parking farther away from the store entrance.

I am also a compensator who tends to intake the difference in calories from additional cardio because the extra hunger makes me very irritated.

So on a typical week I do cardio 2-3 times a week, while losing weight I reduce to 1-2 times and while gaining weight I increase to 3-4 times.

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It’s not you, it’s me

For some, NEAT remains constant no matter how much they exercise. Doing 30-60min of cardio will increase how many calories they burn in a day and helps in weight-loss.

Remember cardio is not the devil, but is also not a must for weight-loss. Everyone responds differently to exercise duration, type and frequency.

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Climbing trees is NEAT.

This personal discovery helps to answer why what worked for your neighbour may not work for you.

Never accept a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to fitness, exercise and dieting.

Universal truths do not exist when it comes to behaviour. Outliers exist, but unfortunately are not highlighted in data analysis.

So take a look at yourself now. Rather than looking at what works best for you, are you missing the opportunity to maximize results by trying to fit into a mold created for the 7 out of 10 people around you?


***Note: For a more in-depth look at individual differences please refer to the Bret Contreras review on the topic.

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