Standing naked in front of my bathroom mirror, I had never been so disgusted with what I saw.
I had just finished a project that had me camp out in a boardroom for ten days straight. Ten very sedentary days. I gained a little weight.
Next up: the holiday season. It didn’t help.
I came back to work in January determined to return to my pre-project weight. As a former elite athlete, I knew the drill: Eat less, exercise more.
Except after two weeks, it wasn’t working. Burning calories for 30-60 minutes a day during exercise and walking around slightly hungry all day wasn’t cutting it. I was just tired and moody.
Then I stumbled upon a way to burn more calories even when I wasn’t exercising…
It’s called NEAT, which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
Below I will explain how you can easily incorporate it into your day to get in better shape, boost your brain power, and finish your homework earlier so you can spend more time on the things you actually enjoy doing.
The low-calorie trap
As you surely know, the basic weight gain/loss formula is
calories in – calories out
Consume fewer calories than you burn, and you should lose weight. But as it turns out, it’s not quite that simple.
The problem with trying to just reduce the amount of calories you consume is that your body is not a machine that burns a pre-set amount calories each day. It is constantly modifying the amount of calories it burns based on how much you feed it.
This is because the human body’s primary concern is survival. It doesn’t really care whether it is fat or lean. You might, but it doesn’t. It is designed to survive famines and food shortages, not to get more likes on Instagram.
So by decreasing the amount of energy consumed (in the form of calories eaten), your body responds by lowering the amount of energy it uses in an effort to rebalance the equation.
Due to producing less energy, your body begins to perform at a lower level. Your metabolism slows down, you get moody and fatigued.
It’s a trap: reducing the amount of calories you consume can actually lead to weight gain as your body starts clinging to every calorie in sight.
Mind the gap
In order open up a relative gap between the amount of calories in vs. calories out, you need to ensure that the body’s survival instinct doesn’t get triggered. You need to bring both sides of the calories in vs. calories out equation up.
You need to increase the “flux“, which is the absolute level of calories on both sides of the equation.
The higher the flux, the more your body is willing to burn fat tissue, rather than fighting to hold onto it.
You need to both consume and expend more calories.
Ever wondered how Michael Phelps can eat 12,000 calories a day and still look ripped?
Yes, he works out all day long, but it’s also because his body is receiving 12,000 calories a day and is by no means concerned about starving.
But don’t worry, I promised you a way to burn calories even when you’re not exercising, you don’t have to train like Michael Phelps to have a six-pack.
The amount of calories burned in a day is equal to:
Resting metabolic rate (the bare bones amount of energy required by the body to function while lying motionless for 24 hours)
Thermic effect of food (energy required to digest food)
Intentional sports-like exercise
NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis)
NEAT is, therefore, the energy expended for everything you do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise.
It includes things like walking to class, brushing your teeth, and cooking.
Humans evolved to hunt and gather, to sow and reap; lifestyles that inherently require the body to burn thousands of calories a day through constant motion. Humans weren’t designed to run like mad on a treadmill for 30 minutes, burning maybe 200 calories, and to then sit nearly motionless for the other 15 hours of our day burning next to nil.
Research proves just that: low levels of NEAT can cancel out the benefits of intense daily exercise.
Therefore, you can’t rely on burning calories just during exercise, it’s crucial to focus on keeping your metabolism high throughout the day.
Stop going into low power mode
When you sit still, you are essentially telling your body that it doesn’t need to perform; to take a break and go into low power mode.
Similar to your laptop: unplug the energy source and by default, it will start conserving power because it now thinks power is scarce and it isn’t sure when it will get plugged in again. The processing speed slows down, the backlight dims, it stops checking for updates, and if you don’t keep it occupied, it will start to power down on its own.
The human body works in a similar way. When you sit down for long periods of time, it enters low power mode, metabolism slows down, it processes fewer calories, less energy is available to power the brain, and brain processing speed slows down.
This is precisely why students struggle to pay attention towards the end of class.
It’s also why I used to keep re-reading each page of my economics textbook 4x in a row. My brain literally was not getting the energy it needed to focus.
How to boost your brain power
Research by Dr. Charles Hillman at the University of Illinois demonstrates exactly this: subjects who walked for 20 minutes prior to taking a reading comprehension test performed better than those who didn’t.
In order to keep your brain performing at a high level, it’s important to avoid sitting down for more than 40-60 minutes at a time.
So when you’re studying or working, at a minimum, get up, walk down the hallway and refill your water every hour.
Better yet, find some stairs, take them and refill your water on a different floor. The more demanding the movement, the more you signal to your body that it needs to be in a high-performance state.
Your metabolism will speed up (even once you sit back down again), you’ll process more fuel, give your brain more energy, and increase your brain power.
You can also increase NEAT by:
- Going for walking meetings instead of sitting down for coffee;
- Find some sort of elevated counter or bar-style table and work while standing for part of the day;
- Stand up and pace around, or even go for a walk while talking on the phone; and
- Climb some extra stairs in between classes.
Worth another look
Once I started thinking about weight loss as a function of keeping a high metabolism all day, I began taking the stairs more and more. Within two weeks, I lost all of the excess weight I gained, my ability to focus improved, the quality of my work increased, the time it took me to complete tasks decreased, and I was in a better mood all day long. This enabled me to leave the office earlier, spend more time doing things I enjoy and get a quantity and quality of sleep.
So no matter what your goal is:
- To trim a couple of pounds;
- Study/work more effectively and efficiently; or
- To just be a little less of a zombie all day long,
Give it shot. Take the stairs (even unnecessarily). Walk and talk. Study standing. Do a quick set of push-ups.
Just find a way to increase your NEAT.
Do this for a week or two, and then perhaps, take another look in the mirror.