24 August 2010

NEAT, Exercise, and Appetite

NEAT - non-exercise activity thermogenesis, "the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting. Even trivial physical activities increase metabolic rate substantially and it is the cumulative impact of a multitude of exothermic actions that culminate in an individual's daily NEAT."

How much does NEAT add to daily calorie burn? The academic consensus: much more than exercise does. Lyle McDonald's own research leads him to the same conclusion:

"The amount of exercise that is or can usually be done is actually fairly trivial compared to the rest of the day.

"That is, the hour someone might spend engaged in exercise is still pretty small compared to what's happening the other 23 hours of the day."

Lyle has covered NEAT at length.

This brings us to a question we should ask ourselves when fat loss is the goal: which is arguably more important, NEAT or exercise?

Consider that NEAT varies by as many as 2,000 calories a day between people. Does adding regular exercise into the mix help or harm?

While most would believe more exercise to only help their weight loss efforts, the more accurate answer to the question is that it depends. Whether the exercise is beneficial depends on 1) the duration of the exercise, 2) the individual, and 3) the type of exercise.

1) While it's true that exercise can only add to total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and blunts appetite in the short-term, as the duration of the exercise increases, it paradoxically increases appetite and overall food intake. Apparently, the same phenomenon was observed in rats:

While 0-1 hours of exercise reduced appetite and body weight, more exercise simply increased appetite and food intake, offsetting the energy cost just enough to keep body weight static. Excessive exercise (> 6 hours) again reduced appetite and body weight.

One of my favorite studies: a subchronic trial using ~130 overweight law enforcement officers showed that similar weight loss by was achieved by the 8th week through either diet + exercise or diet alone. However, an 8-month follow-up revealed that the success rate in weight maintenance of the diet-only group was a dismal 7%, compared to 81% in those officers who continued to exercise after the study was over.

The profound "calorie-matching" effect of exercise can explain why regular exercise has been more reliably implicated in weight maintenance as opposed to weight loss. Indeed, the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), established in 1994, has thus far documented the cases of over 5,000 individuals who have succeeded in weight maintenance following their initial weight loss. The common denominator in all of these cases is continued exercise.

Does it follow, then, that less exercise is preferable when dieting? This next question brings us to the second point: whether more exercise will positively or negatively affect the person depends on the person.

2) In light of the data, the logical solution to keeping exercise as a regular part of the regimen would be to limit its duration in order to prevent it from increasing appetite (and food intake). Now we're clear to go, right?

Unfortunately, one other variable intimately tied to exercise - one that isn't represented on the graph above - is NEAT. The sad state of affairs for some is this: on any given day, more deliberate exercise will merely lead to a subconscious reduction in that day's NEAT. And since the contribution of formal exercise to TDEE is small compared to that of NEAT, the trade-off is worse. Often, the compensatory drop in NEAT is so significant that it results in a net weight loss of zero for the day.

For others, the exercise is an excuse to loaf around for the rest of the day. In short, an hour or two of exercise doesn't justify becoming a couch potato. Continue to stay busy.

Because measuring the actual value for NEAT, which can fluctuate immensely from day to day, is difficult, there is no way a person can know how his/her NEAT changes in response to exercise. If weight loss has stagnated for several weeks (and all of the measures have been taken to ensure that the stall isn't merely due to temporary water retention, which Martin Berkhan has explained how to eliminate), diet has been constant, and exercise has been done regularly and at the same duration (the ideal, but unlikely, situation), then a reduced NEAT must account for the stall.

The simple solution might look to be an avoidance of exercise altogether.  Sounds ludicrous,  but for some, this may be the only practical recommendation until one's goal weight is reached, and it should be viewed from the standpoint of short-term adherence, not health. Eliminating cardio has lowered my incidence of overeating, and it may do the same for others.

So far, some good evidence has been mounted against performing exercise for the purposes of fat loss. But there are 2 caveats to all of this, which brings us to the third and final point.

3) Resistance exercise is the first exception to the rule. While it may not meaningfully increase fat loss, what it does prevent during prolonged dieting is the undue loss of lean body mass (LBM), which is everything else in the body - muscle, bone, other tissues, minerals, and water. This idea is widely accepted in fitness circles, but it's gained considerable ground among the general population as well.

The second exception (and this one's a maybe) is during the stubborn fat phase, which may call for the reintroduction of systematic cardio to actively get rid of the fat that diet alone can't (covered in my last post).


Can Exercise, NEAT, and Appetite Coexist?

As has been the theme of this article, the answer is that it depends. Personal experience leads me to believe it's possible. While my current routine involves doing heavy weight training only once per week, I have exercised much more frequently than that (3-4x/week) with no noticeable increase in appetite.

While I realize I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, and some may suspect that I'm aiming to sell intermittent fasting as the magic bullet to every problem, the fact of the matter is that IF makes the dieting "ride" much smoother on many levels, not the least of which is this.

Given that the fasting portion of IF, especially when coupled with drugs such as caffeine or the combined ingestion of ephedrine and caffeine (the popular "EC stack"), is easily a period of increased NEAT, and because people generally become less active as the day wears on, it would make sense to exercise after the fast, not before it, to derive the benefits of both increased NEAT and the energy cost of formal exercise. And since humans reduce their NEAT in the evenings anyway, not much is lost in exercising in the late afternoon/early evening. Is the theory supported by the results? At least in my case, it is. A sample day might look like this:

5 AM: 100 mg caffeine
7 AM: 100 mg caffeine
9 AM: 100 mg caffeine
11 AM: 100 mg caffeine
1 PM: 100 mg caffeine
3 PM: 100 mg caffeine
5 PM: 100 mg caffeine
7 PM: Workout
9 PM: Eat

From 5 AM - 5 PM, my NEAT (cleaning, laundry, grooming) is high. Knowing myself, I get sluggish in the evenings. So, the workout gives me one last "bump" in expenditure before I hibernate. What about my appetite? It does increase, but the fact that I've gone the whole day without eating allows me to enjoy a rather large post-workout feast that leaves me feeling very satisfied. Needless to say, I've never increased my food intake beyond my allotted calories following my workouts.


My Previous Week's Diet (8/17 - 8/23)

Highlight meals:

1. 3 frozen dinners, a box of raisins, and 3 scoops of protein powder

2. Two In-N-Out burgers + pint of BandJ's

3. Noodles (at a family gathering)

Weigh-in 2 weeks ago (8/9):175 lbs
Weigh-in 1 week ago (8/16):168.2 lbs
Weigh-in Monday morning (8/23): 178 lbs (post carb-up)
Weigh-in Monday evening (8/23): 171 lbs (at end of fast, before eating)

Tuesday, 8/17
1479 kcal, 111g protein, 133g carbs (1st photo above)

Wednesday, 8/18
1450 kcal, 110g PRO, 130g CHO

Thursday, 8/19
~3500 kcal (2nd photo above plus a bunch of other food)

Friday, 8/20

Saturday, 8/21

Sunday, 8/22
Feast! (3rd photo above)

Monday, 8/23
1350 kcal, 80g PRO, 130g CHO


Training (8/16) - Depletion workout*

Leg press: 90 lbs, 6x15
Leg curls: 50 lbs, 6x15
Machine bench press: 135 lbs, 6x15
Machine row: 100 lbs, 6x15
Machine lateral raise: 35 lbs, 4x12
Calf raise: 70 lbs, 6x12
Rope pressdowns: 70 lbs, 6x15
Machine preacher curls: 30 lbs, 6x12

*Adapted from Lyle's recommended depletion protocol in The Ultimate Diet 2.0.


  1. my NEAT levels are probably pretty low. desk/lab jobs are not the business haha. i too use caffeine, fasting, and also eating lots of protein (higher thermic effect of food) to probably help out my NEAT.

  2. Well, it's better than sleeping in. Just going from asleep to awake to sitting (your job) bumps up RMR anyway. Do you go to work fasted?

  3. yeah i go to work fasted, but break it by lunch time. if i'm doing lab work, it's easy to not think about food, but when i'm on the computer, i get hungry haha

  4. I am really enjoying your blog and your results using the leangains approach. Question though: how realistic is it to eat once everyday (at 9PM no less)? If you don't live in a complete vacuum that is? Do you ever go out for lunch? Do you think this style of eating you are doing is setting you up to ultimately fail in the long term? thanks

  5. Chris,
    Thanks! Answers to your questions below:

    "How realistic is it to eat once everyday (at 9PM no less)?"
    The hour-by-hour protocol you saw in my post was an example; my actual feeding time may be earlier or later.

    That said, I think it's very realistic to eat in the evening when I can. If something comes up one day, I don't sweat it. When I'm fasted, I can focus better when in class, studying, & doing chores/errands.

    "Do you think this style of eating you are doing is setting you up to ultimately fail in the long term?"
    Nope, not so far at least. If I have dinner plans with friends - as you'll see from the photos in my next post - I'll do the usual daytime fast plus a pre-feast depletion workout.

    I suspect that you're trying to gauge the compatibility of this diet with the average lifestyle. I think the 2 are very compatible. :)

  6. Hi Martin, thanks for the response. I am leaning heavily on cutting the cardio I am doing (50-60 miles/week) and adding in weights only for a bit (maybe 4-6 weeks)to strengthen up. But call it brainswashing or something, I equate no cardio with putting on weight (and I'd rather not go low carb, which I tried with no cardio and it worked, but was not feasible long term). I am really close to committing to the leangains approach and am really curious about your progress/issues/etc etc.

    Anyway I am waiting to hear more about your experience! Thinking

  7. I can't believe you got so damn cut eating all that crap! They'd have to roll me down a hill if I ate Ben and Jerry's on a weekly basis. You look great! Keep it up!

  8. Dream_Puppy,
    Thanks very much! It looks like you have a food blog as well - I'll be following it! By the way, soon I'll be taking after you & transition to a ketogenic diet to finish off my cut.


  9. Well the good thing about IF is that it is naturally ketogenic, meaning even if you eat higher carbs you can still produce ketones. I try to keep it ketogenic every day except one or two. You gotta live :) I am lenient in my food choices and VERY stringent about eating once a day.

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