The importance of NEAT and step count targets
What is NEAT? And why are step count targets so important?
NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis … but what exactly does this mean?
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is basically the energy expended for everything we do during the day from the moment we wake up until the minute we go to sleep that isn’t sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended fidgeting, typing, cooking, or just getting up from the sofa to walking to work, gardening, shopping, vacuuming, playing with the kids, and so on.
Before we consider the importance of NEAT and ways to increase it, it is worth understanding the other ways in which we use energy (calories) as part of our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
REE stands for resting energy expenditure and NREE stands for non-resting energy expenditure.
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the rate at which your body uses energy when you are at rest – for example sitting on the sofa – in order to keep vital functions such as breathing going. In other words it is what makes up your REE.
Your BMR is based on your body composition (fat vs muscle mass). Muscle mass is the amount of muscle tissue on your body. Muscle requires more energy to function than fat so the more muscle tissue you carry, the more energy your body needs just to exist.
BMR or REE makes up about 60-70% of your TDEE.
Next up we have your NEAT, which we have already mentioned and will go into more detail about shortly.
After that you see Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – this is the energy required to digest the foods we eat and this varies from food to food.
Some foods require more work to digest than others and therefore use more calories in doing so. For example, lean protein, leafy green veggies, high fibre vegetables and grains are harder to digest than simple carbohydrates so eating these foods increases the thermic effect. Or in other words, burns more calories.
TEF makes up about 10% of your TDEE but also is a MAJOR contributor to your BMR.
EAT at the top of this diagram is unfortunately NOT what you eat!
Your exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) is the energy expended from exercise that we intentionally engage in, such as weight training, running, playing football, cycling, swimming, HIIT, boxing, dancing, and so on.
The interesting thing is that EAT only makes up about 5% of your TDEE so it is probably the least important factor in the world of calorie burning when it comes to weight loss goals.
You know the saying “You can’t out-train a bad diet”? Well, that stems from the fact that your EAT generally contributes such a small percentage of your calories burned throughout the week.
Unless you are a professional athlete training for several hours every day, the likelihood is that your training session will last anywhere between 30-90 minutes, and this only makes up approximately 2-6% of your entire day (a 24 hour period).
This is why what you do over the other 22-23 hours of your day and how active you are is going to have a much bigger impact on your TDEE, in other words how many calories your body burns on a daily basis.
Granted, perhaps 6-8 hours of this time will be spent sleeping each night. However, that still leaves anywhere between 14-15 hours that could be spent not moving much at all or staying as active as possible to keep your body burning the calories required to help keep you in a calorie deficit.
Daily activity: step count targets
So, we’re back to the question of why step counts are important? The answer is because the more we move the higher our NEAT will be – that is, the more calories we will burn, which will help towards putting us in that calorie deficit that we require to lose weight.
After our BMR, our NEAT is the next highest contributor to our TDEE, making up about 10-15% of our total daily energy expenditure.
Simply moving around a little more each day and doing a few more steps is the easiest and most effective way to increase your energy expenditure. This could involve walking to work instead of taking the car, getting off the bus a stop earlier, taking the stairs instead of the lift or running around with the kids for a little longer than usual.
It has been proven that those who have relatively active jobs and lifestyles, such as manual labourers, will burn more calories on a daily basis compared to those with sedentary jobs and lifestyles, such as desk-based workers.
Having a step count target gives us a goal and helps to keep us accountable. It reminds us to move more to try and hit our daily targets.
This is why we recommend tracking your steps and aiming for a specific step count target every day, alongside your training or exercise routine. There are plenty of ways to track your steps, for example on a Fitbit, Applewatch, Garmin, or a free app on your phone.
It’s important to remember that not all step trackers are accurate but, believe it or not, that doesn’t actually matter! What matters is consistently using the same tracker. It’s not the number of steps that counts but increasing your step count.
This is one of the reasons why we do not tell you to simply aim for 10,000 steps a day (a common number that is thrown around). Instead, we prefer to use percentages and tailor your step count target to what is realistic for you and your lifestyle. The aim is to move more and increasing your steps is possibly the easiest way to do this.
Some more ideas of ways to hit your step count target include:
- Get into a routine of walking – this could be first thing in the morning, during your lunch break, after dinner, or whenever fits into your schedule.
- Walk to and from places instead of driving or taking public transport.
- Park a little further away from your destination, for example at the back of the supermarket car park, and walk the final leg.
- Go to the supermarket to shop instead of shopping online and getting your food delivered.
- Always take the stairs over the lift or escalator.
- Run up and down the stairs while you wait for the kettle to boil.
- Walk a new route with your dog – make it a little longer each time.
- Play football in the garden with the kids or grandkids, or chase them around the park instead of watching them from the bench.
- Instead of meeting a friend for coffee, go for a walk together while you catch up.
- Stop ignoring those weeds – do some gardening.
- Vacuum more often!
- Dance along to your favourite tunes or follow a dance video on YouTube.
- Do some yoga flows to relax instead of flopping onto the sofa after work.
- Be creative – anything that gets you moving!
The most important thing to remember is that every little bit adds up! Set yourself targets and move a little more each day. Whatever your current step count, if you increase it by 10-20% you will immediately be using more energy and therefore burning more calories.
Concentrate on your NEAT, combined with a sustainable calorie deficit and support that with your training/ exercise regime (prioritise strength and resistance training to help your body retain and build lean muscle mass) and you will definitely see weight loss results.