Food and nutrition make up half of the battle with energy balance. The other half is your activity level. How much are you moving each day? How active are you over the week? Are you sedentary or do you train an hour every day?
How often you are moving and how vigorously you move plays an important role in your results. But maybe not as much as you think it does.
We’ve had programs and pieces of equipment shoved down our throats on tv and in gyms for years now.
“Buy the Ab-Blaster3000 today!”
“Sweat the fat off on my Fat-Sweat Body Sculptor3000 program!”
Here’s the truth though… Most of it is garbage.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for you getting to the gym and sweating it out while you work hard, but the program has to complement your goals directly. Besides — for most people, the time you spend in the gym makes up less than 3% of your week, probably 5% maximum. What are you doing for the rest of the week?
Increasing your daily activity level can have some of the largest benefits for your fat loss crusade. We can achieve the energy balance required for fat loss by either:
a) Consuming less energy
b) Burning more energy
c) A combination of both
Whichever path you choose, as long as you burn more than you consume, you will lose fat. Ideally, we are creating our energy deficit using a combination of both. No one wants to starve themselves and restrict everything completely. And no one should be trying to outwork their bad diet by mindlessly smashing themselves in the gym for 2 hours a day.
The energy you burn throughout the day can be broken down into 4 components:
1) BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)
2) NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis)
3) EAT (Exercise Activity Thermogenesis)
4) TEF (Thermic Effect of Food)
All of these put together add up to your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). So, which of these contributes most to your fat loss effort and where should you place most of your time and effort?
Your BMR cannot be easily increased or decreased. It is determined by your sex, age, height and weight. Someone who weighs 100kg will naturally burn more energy to sustain life than a 60kg person. And given that we can’t magically age ourselves or adjust our height, weight is really the only factor we can control here. And even then, it is a slow process that only gradually affects your BMR.
It is good to know though, as you lose weight you will actually require less food to maintain your current state. This can be an explanation for any plateaus you may have hit in the past, or might hit in the future. But as we can’t affect our BMR too much, in the short term at least, we won’t focus on it too much here.
Another small factor in the amount of energy you burn throughout the day is the Thermic Effect of Food. This is the amount of energy it takes to break down and process the food you eat. Naturally, some foods are easier to break down than others.
Simple sugars, for example, are already as close to their most basic form as they can be and are ready to be utilised by the body. They are digested and absorbed rather easily. This can explain why you often feel hungry again quite quickly after eating high-sugar or low-quality meals. Protein on the other hand is the most thermic of foods. It takes the most energy to break it down and be used by the body.
Again, this is why high-protein foods can be more satiating and more filling. While it does play a small role in the total energy burnt throughout the day, it is a small piece of the puzzle and does not require too much of your attention.
Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is the energy you burn when performing exercise. Hitting the gym, going for a run, playing sport are all examples of Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This is one of the most common ways to burn extra calories. Planning your time for exercise or sport allows you to get in a routine and schedule your calorie burning.
As you can see in the above graph though, it still only makes up a small chunk of your entire day. And as I mentioned above, it only makes up a tiny percentage of your whole week. While I am definitely not discouraging you from structuring exercise and getting to the gym (in fact, that’s one of the best things you can do for your body composition!), it is important that you don’t solely rely on that time spent exercising as your only source of energy burning.
There are plenty of hours left in the week OUT of the gym, these are just as crucial, if not more, than your time IN the gym.
Last but not least is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. NEAT is the amount of energy you burn when performing activity that is not necessarily planned or structured.
It’s going for a walk on your lunch break.
It’s taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
It’s parking your car further away at the shopping centre.
It’s fidgeting or shivering.
It’s taking your dogs for a walk or playing with your kids.
NEAT is all the low-intensity activity and involuntary movement you accumulate throughout the day that contributes to your total energy burnt . Given that you might hit the gym 3-5 hours per week, that leaves you with over 160 hours left in the week. Take out roughly 50-60 for sleep and you’ve got over 100 hours where you can be moving or at least slightly contributing to your total energy expenditure.
This is how you can greatly increase your energy deficit and lose fat.
While certain jobs can lend themselves to a greater NEAT, sometimes as high as an extra 2000 calories per day , not everyone is in an active role that can contribute that much extra burning. That’s why a good place to start is by tracking your steps. If you sit down all day you might struggle to hit 8000 steps. Placing an emphasis on getting 8000 steps is your first goal. Go for walks or a run, park further from your office, whatever you need to do to achieve your target.
Once you can hit it consistently you can start to increase it. Aim for 9000, and then 10 000 and so on. You will see a dramatic improvement in the calories you burn each day but also improvements in joint health and function, cardiovascular fitness and even mental health. If you can’t track steps, setting a time benchmark can be a good place to start. Aim to get 30 minutes of walking in each day, for example. Once again, you can increase this as you go.
Going from 5 sessions per week to 6 or 7 isn’t the next step for more progress. Adding another 30mins onto your gym sessions will get you maybe another 100 calories burnt per session. But you’ll also get more soreness, more time away from family, more potential for over-training and less intensity in your actual sessions.
On the other hand, if you focus on adding in more daily activity throughout your week you can increase your total energy expenditure and create more of a deficit without the hassle or stress extra training might place on your body.
Now, if you’re training for a specific event or goal, or you are looking to increase muscle mass and definition, more time in the gym with a more well-structured program will probably serve you better and is often required. But for fat loss, more movement overall is the key, not just more planned movement or more gym sessions.
When we look at your overall TDEE and the factors that we can actually influence and control, EAT & NEAT are the 2 that we can impact the most. If you currently don’t train, getting to the gym 3 times per week will definitely increase your overall energy expenditure and, if you eat well, will definitely result in some great progress.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that alone will be the catalyst for an amazing transformation. It takes a consistent, holistic, full-week effort to make a permanent change and really impact your results. Place just as much emphasis on your NEAT and all the activity you do outside the gym, as you do in the gym, and you will no doubt be moving in the right direction to achieve the body you desire.