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Understanding NEAT and Adaptations

This is an excerpt from Age Strong by Rachel Cosgrove.

NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and it’s also called NEPA, or non-exercise physical activity. These terms describe the calories burned from activities of daily living, not including a purposeful workout session. NEAT is the second largest contributor to your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and is made up of the following four areas:

  1. Your basal metabolic rate (the calories you burn if you lay on the couch all day, doing nothing), which increases as we add muscle
  2. NEAT
  3. The thermic effect of food (calories you burn to process the food you eat)
  4. Calories burned through exercise

You have to watch your body adjusting for NEAT quite dramatically. This is why extreme diets and too much exercise (particularly excessive cardio) can backfire.

Let’s say you burn 2,000 calories per day, and you’re eating at a maintenance level. Then you cut 250 calories from your caloric intake and add 250 calories burned from exercise. Now you have a nice 500-calorie deficit and will start losing fat. You’re consuming 1,750 and burning 2,250. Then you decide to add another 500 calories of cardio, thinking this will give you a 1,000-calorie deficit and faster results.

The problem is, our metabolism doesn’t work like a calculator. Our bodies don’t like to change, are extremely smart, and will adjust to maintain homeostasis (keep things the same). In this example, it’s very likely your body will adjust the NEAT portion of your TDEE.

After a hard exercise session and burning lots of calories, your body will naturally start to conserve calories. You’re a little more tired, so you sit down more. You walk a little slower or park closer. You move a little less. Very quickly, your body is burning maybe 300 to 400 fewer calories per day in this non-exercise activity. Now the 500-calorie deficit you had is almost entirely offset by your body adjusting for NEAT. The body adapts to the extra exercise by downregulating other physiological responses (primarily movement) to keep your deficit at a certain limit.

If you’re looking for fat loss, the total caloric burn each day is important, and your total energy expenditure will increase with exercise but tends to plateau at high volumes of exercise as the body adapts to maintain your deficit. So, more is not always better.

This is why we prioritize weight training. It burns calories while you are doing it. Then it keeps burning calories after you’ve finished and builds muscle, which burns calories at rest, increasing your basal metabolic rate. If you’re doing more than four hours of exercise a week, you’ll want to keep an eye on your daily non-exercise activity. We’ve found four hours total to be an ideal amount of exercise to complement an active lifestyle: two or three hours of strength training and one or two hours of high-intensity interval training. Adding more usually leads to an offset with NEAT.

More Excerpts From Age Strong