“In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless.” That’s a quote from Dr. Eric Ravussin in the August 9, 2009 issue Time Magazine, based on his 2009 research on metabolism and caloric restriction. Has this guy lost his mind?
Far from it.
In terms of fat burning, exercise isn’t important in the way you think it is. Let me explain…
Feel The Burn
There are four contributors to your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is just a fancy way of referring to how many Calories you burn throughout the day:
- Exercise, or how many Calories you burn during a workout.
- RMR, or resting metabolic rate. This is how many Calories you burn at rest. When this is tested in a lab, the subjects are lying down doing absolutely nothing. No iPhone, no TV, nothing. About 50-75% of your daily Caloric burn goes to just keeping the lights on, so to speak.
- NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This is how many Calories you burn doing non-exercise activities. Basically, this covers all activity that falls between doing absolutely nothing and exercising.
- TEF, thermic effect of feeding, is the relatively small Caloric cost of digesting your food.
Look at the contributions of RMR and NEAT to daily Calorie burn compared to that of exercise. In context, Dr. Ravussin’s statement suddenly begins to make more sense. RMR and NEAT have a far greater impact on energy expenditure yet they are all but ignored when forming a strategy for reaching your body composition goals.
As an example, take a typical hour-long workout that burns maybe 300-500 calories (or much less than that for some people). At best, that probably represents less than 20% of the calories you burn in a day. If you work a sedentary job, exercise for an hour, and then go home and sit on the couch, the additional Caloric burn really isn’t all that high.
The point then is that exercising to burn Calories offers you a really low return on investment, IF burning Calories is your goal with exercise…which it absolutely should not be! Since day one, we have encouraged you to exercise in order to get better at exercise. In addition, at least some of your exercise should be done with the intent of building and maintaining muscle to protect and increase RMR.
We’ll get to that, but what about NEAT?
Low NEAT Is Keeping You From Reaching Your Fat Loss Goals
I have a FitBit Charge HR and I highly recommend it for tracking. One of the biggest complaints I hear about this handy device is that since it’s affected by sweat and where it’s located on your arm, it doesn’t always track workouts well. People are fixating on the one thing it doesn’t do great while ignoring the overwhelming number of things it does well.
When you see that it’s your RMR and NEAT that are doing the vast majority of your “heavy lifting” in terms of fat loss, you can see the tremendous value of tracking your non-exercise activities. The more you can be aware of how much NEAT you’re getting, the better. The Charge HR is great for this, and it also does a lot of other cool stuff like tracking sleep.
If you already have a FitBit or some other tracking device, think about that “Calories Burned” number that seems so absurd. I mean, really, who would ever eat that much? Yeah…that’s how much you should be eating most of the time. If you aren’t, that’s a big clue as to why you aren’t getting the results you want. When you are constantly restricting, your body simply adjusts. That is why we only recommend short periods of focused fat loss.
The Mall Walkers Only Have it Half Right
Alright, so now you’re thinking, “BOOM. I am going to hike my way to abs.” Not so fast. There are two parts to this equation: NEAT and RMR. Focusing on NEAT is the first part, where your work capacity is higher (more non-exercise calories burned). The second part is using resistance training (body weight movements and/or weight training) to increase your overall metabolic rate (RMR). Remember, when RMR is tested in the lab, subjects aren’t doing anything. And that accounts for 50% of your daily calorie burn.
Increased muscle mass increases RMR. Eating at or near your TDEE most of the time is also critical if you want to maintain and improve RMR. And in the end, an increase in RMR is going to give you a much bigger bang for your buck than exercise in and of itself. In fact, it is the single biggest factor in determining how many calories you burn.
You can absolutely just eat less and do more to increase NEAT, but if you have body composition goals, you will hit a wall using this strategy alone.
Once again, I’ll use myself as an example.
In both of these pictures I weigh 162 pounds. What’s the difference? In the picture on the right, taken about 6 months later, I have 15 pounds more muscle and 10% less body fat. These were taken about 7 years ago when I was pretty new to training. Muscle is the secret.
It gets better: NEAT allows you to “flex” your metabolism.
High intensity training and weight lifting both require a lot of glucose, which means you need to be replacing your lost glycogen stores to get better at exercise. NEAT isn’t like that – it’s fueled primarily by fat in most people. As a general rule, you don’t need a lot of carbs on those days and you can rely on stored fat to get you through the activity. Sounds pretty NEAT, right? (Sorry.) Now hang on just a minute…I’m not saying zero carbs, and I’m not saying to eat dramatically less. There becomes a point where your body stops responding to that. That said, if it’s a rest day, keep your carbs lower (LOWER, not zero) and increase your fats a bit.
Now that I’m more aware of this, here are some examples of changes I’ve made:
- I walk the dog longer.
- I get out in nature more often for hikes (a great hour-long lunch activity).
- I ride bikes with my daughters more often.
- I stand more when I’m on the phone or teleconferences.
- I walk to the store rather than driving.
If Ya Don’t Know, Now Ya Know
I’m not an amazing athlete, but I am pretty good at figuring out what actually works. I see a lot of people killing themselves in the gym with no visible results. We talk ad nauseam about the value of eating at maintenance (or even more, egad!). We also talk about why demonizing carbs is missing the point. Maximizing RMR and NEAT through focused resistance training, eating at TDEE most of the time, and adding more low intensity activity is the way to go.
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