Is burning fat and keeping it off as simple as moving more? Is the solution to the entire obesity crisis getting off our butts? Well, yes and no. Yes, moving more is part of the answer. But no, moving more is not “the one magic thing” by itself. Burning more is only one side of the energy balance equation. More exercise will help, but it will never be a crutch for poor nutrition. For guaranteed results, we need to work on both sides of the equation – eat right AND move more. But there’s one huge part of burning more that most people ignore…
The Massive Calorie Burning Potential That Most People Are Missing
When most people think of burning calories, they only think of working out in the gym. What they fail to consider is the amount of calories they’e burning – or not burning – the rest of the day (non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT).
Over the last century, we’ve become a profoundly sedentary society. Cars, computers, elevators, televisions and all kinds of labor saving devices have almost all of us moving less, all day long. We have gone from a primarily agricultural and physically-laboring society to a desk-bound knowledge and technology society.
All day long we move from chair to chair and find ingenious ways to avoid exertion.
Our daily calorie burn has dropped so much, it’s not always easy to counterbalance it with “formal” gym workouts that are only an hour or less, several times per week. Combine that with being surrounded (and tempted) by food almost 24-7 and it should be no mystery why we have a body fat problem.
For the last few months, I’ve been experimenting with a FitBit – a fancy pedometer that tracks your steps, makes you more aware of NEAT and encourages you to get off your butt and move more. I reviewed the Fit Bit in my last Burn the Fat Blog post and gave it a thumbs up, but that was just a product review. This post is about the bigger picture: how can moving more help solve the body fat problem today?
Are Pedometers and Calorie Tracking Gadgets Really Effective Motivation Tools?
First question: Will a Fit Bit (or similar gadgets like the Body Bugg), be effective as a motivation tool? I suppose it depends on your personality. It was beneficial to me, which might surprise many people because I’m already a fit and motivated guy; I don’t need any one (or anything) nudging me to work out and I know how to balance training and nutrition to achieve any kind of shape I want.
But, as I mentioned in part 1, several years ago, I had a career shift that took me from fitness trainer to fitness writer. Alas, I had become what fitness experts now call an “active couch potato.” I was training hard in the gym, but spending the rest of my time in front of a computer – lots of 10, 12 or even 15 hour days.
One of the ways these gadgets are motivating is through awareness. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know you have one, right? Even with all my prior fitness knowledge, when I started tracking my activity, I had some surprising revelations.
Since using a fitbit, I found that on days I didn’t go to the gym and I didn’t even leave the house, my step count was extremely low. On those days, I only accumulated 3,000 to 4,000 steps.
One day, just as an experiment, I wanted to see exactly how FEW steps I could walk. It was a day I didn’t go the gym and didn’t leave the house. I confined myself to my desk and dug into one of my writing projects. 990 steps. That actually wasn’t easy. I had to force myself to sit still.
The big A-HA moment however, was during one of my weight training workouts…
On the first day I had the fit bit with me in the gym, I checked it after the workout and saw that I had taken 1800 steps in under an hour. No, not on the treadmill – just walking around the gym between sets. I thought that was interesting, so the next workout I intentionally walked around between sets as much as I could, instead of resting.
I used to shoot the breeze between exercises, or sit on the edge of a bench and catch my breath between sets of squats. This time, I kept walking around, only stopping when my training partner needed a spot and it was time for my set. It drove my training partner crazy…
“Will you sit still, dammit?” He yelled, “You’re as hyper as a crack addict! Stop, you’re making me dizzy!”
I didn’t stop. In 55 minutes, I added 2900 steps just from pacing the gym floor between sets of weight lifting instead of sitting on the bench doing nothing.
Most people familiar with this subject are now thinking I’m heading down the road of ,”Just add X extra steps a day” or “just walk 10,000 steps a day” and you’ll get leaner from that alone. While that’s likely to be true, my mind was darting around in other directions.
The Shocking Truth About Your “Genetically Inherited” Body Type
It was the “crack addict” comment that did it. It made me picture the skinny junkie who can’t keep weight on, who is hyperactive and can’t stop twitching and pacing. That in turn, reminded me about the somatotype concept of ectomorph versus endomorph- the “naturally” skinny person version the “naturally” heavy person.
Most people think of being an endomorph as a genetic thing – a body shape you were born with. They feel it’s out of their control and so they often feel powerless and may give up or not even try. But maybe part of endomorphy is that you’re genetically predisposed – not to be fat for no reason – but to be fat because your natural predisposition is not moving much. In other words, you gravitate – without even realizing it – to a low level of non exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). The ectomorph who can’t gain weight is the exact opposite.
If it’s true that an endomorph’s excess weight is largely due to not moving as much as their skinny, fidgety ectomorph counterparts, this is good news, because activity is something you control Most endos are completely unaware of how sedentary they really are – all day long. Endomorphssimply need a wake up call: GET MOVING!
A NEAT, New Fat Loss Paradigm
The problem is most people are focusing only on exercise activity and giving no thought to non exercise activity, when you should really pay attention to both. Why not start thinking about fat loss like this:
Old paradigm: Nutrition + exercise
New paradigm: Nutrition + formal exercise + non exercise activity.
Now you have 3 parts of the energy balance equation to play with – 1 on calories in side and 2 on the calories out side.
If you could ramp up BOTH on the calories out side, what kind of advantage would you have?
What if you had THREE points of energy expenditure you could ramp up: weight training (formal exercise), cardio training (formal exercise), non exercise activity?
If I could add 2900 steps – an extra 1100 above what I was doing before – with something as simple as walking around between sets instead of sitting on the bench – in under an hour – what could someone accomplish in an entire day with all the accumulated increased activity, and how would that add up over the weeks, months and years? Could that be what a skinny ectomorph really is? NOT a genetic anomaly per se, but a person always moving; who can’t stay still?
So many people are focused on that brief workout – 30 minutes or 60 minutes per day and thinking that one workout is the end all be all of their daily calorie burning. Meanwhile, the total of calories burned from the accumulation of little activities in the waking portion of the other 23 hours of the day has the potential to dwarf what was burned during the workout.
Why is this so ignored? One reason is because a little more each day doesn’t lead to fast weight loss. Sometimes, it’s so slow, the effects are imperceptible in the short term, and yet this could be one of the MAJOR factors that determine whether a person is thin or obese in the long run. Think about it: A river carving it’s way through rock is slow too, but the end result is a magnificent canyon.
Think about how you could increase activities throughout the rest of the day, ignoring the fact that each of them is moving just a little and thinking about how it will add up to a lot over time.
I live on the 6th floor and yes, I have for years used the elevator most of the time. Now I’ve started taking the stairs about 80% of the time. 100 steps up,100 steps down, two or three times a day. Call it another 500 steps a day, plus extra calories burned from the stairs up.
What about errands? My town is one square mile: all walkable. Are you in a similar situation? Do you drive to the store, just blocks away, once a week? Could you walk two or three times instead?
What about cleaning or yard work? How active are you around the house?
How often do you get up from your chair during the day? Could you do some of your work at a standing workstation or even a treadmill desk?
NEAT research on the 10,000 steps a day goal
When I was writing my 2nd book on fat loss, The Body Fat Solution that was the first time I started doing in-depth research on the impact that NEAT has on your total daily calorie burn. One study from the American Journal of Health Promotion really caught my eye. It found that in previously sedentary, overweight adults, subjects who met a 10,000 steps per day goal saw large improvements in body composition. Those who missed their goal did not.
Another study that raised an eyebrow was the one about the physical activity level of older order Amish culture, which has not fully adopted labor saving devices or modern lifestyles. A pedometer study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that Amish men walked an average of 18,425 steps per day and women 14,195 steps. The average American logs in about 5,000 per day. That works out to about a 400 to 600 calorie per day difference, which is a really good approximation of how physical activity has changed as technology has advanced over the last century.
This is the interesting part: The Amish have the lowest obesity rate, and they don’t diet. Their foods were not low in carbs or low in calories – the fare included meat, eggs, gravy, potatoes, bread and even pies and cakes (shoo-fly pie anyone?) There you have another real world example of calories in versus calories out: The high activity level of the Amish (calories out) balanced their calories coming in.
In testing different ways to hit 10,000 steps a day (which is about 5 miles for the average person), I tried long single session walks versus multiple shorter walks, taking breaks from my chair and desk. I like long walks, especially when there’s nice weather and nice scenery like foresty hills, parks or along the shoreline. One walk, 10K steps. No problem.
But I noticed that while I sometimes enjoy long walks, the long walks can drag and they are hard to keep up consistently if you try to force yourself to do them every day as part of the “formal exercise.” On the other hand, multiple short walks and errands add up almost so effortlessly, you hardly notice it, but at the end of the day it all adds up just the same.
I found out that with my desk-computer job, hitting 10,000 steps required me to get up and go out of my way to walk a little extra, unless I was lifting AND doing cardio in the gym. I would not have known this without a pedometer. I could probably keep it up now without using the pedometer because my awareness has been changed. But the pedometer keeps me accountable and I have the personality that number tracking as always kept me motivated.
Consistency and Habit – the Real Keys To Fat Loss Success
The first month, I hit more than 10,000 steps per day average. The second month – it dropped to 6,000. Old habits die hard. And this is a real key to making NEAT strategy work: you have to make each added activity a new habit.
If you go hung ho and walk 20,000 steps for a few days, that’s great. If you take the stairs for a week, that’s great. But the only thing that counts is what you make a part of your new active lifestyle and keep up every day.
Look at those monthly averages to see how you are really doing. When you hit the point where your average step count has increased substantially month to month as a matter of new activity habits, that is when you’ll start to see the difference in controlling your weight. Otherwise your efforts are no different than any other short term fix.
My third month I got my count back up. I made it a habit to always get out of the house and walk, every day, no matter what. I found another simple way to bump the average up: take a very long walk or hike once a week. I know cyclists who do the same thing: once a week – a really long Sunday ride.
I also decided that once a month or so, I would see if I could break my step record walking. Last month I had a day with 45,000 steps. That was about 6 hours of walking plus miscellaneous activity. Earlier this month, I was in Northern California and took a day hike along the Pacific Coastal Trail: that was 52,839 steps and 432 floors (lots of hills). That was probably 7 or 8 hours of hiking, all together.
Before I started this “NEAT step experiment” a few months ago, I wondered whether the FitBit gizmo would end up just being a novelty. Would I just test it out for a while – merely to write a review on the blog or to be more informed about popular fitness products – and then it would get shelved?
Actually, no. Using a fitbit, I not only became newly fascinated with step counts and and re-interested in NEAT. I also found it remarkably motivating to hit a step count goal every day and even to occasionally go out to beat my record. I used the device – and still do -every day. One day, I realized it was not in my pocket for half the day (an active day). I was really irked and went out and clocked 10,000 more steps before the evening was over, just to “have the score on the board.”
Intense Training vs NEAT
None of this should be taken to imply that you shouldn’t train with intensity.
Another of my discoveries from this experiment so far is that I don’t believe casual or slow walking should completely replace high intensity cardio training, especially when there is a goal with a deadline. Walking is a great start for overweight men and women or beginners who haven’t developed the fitness level yet to push themselves really hard, and walking can help anyone add some extra calorie burn, but I’m convinced that if high intensity cardio can be included, it should be included.
It also goes without saying that the high intensity training beats low intensity training for time efficiency. Busy people just don’t have hours to walk every day – and it takes a lot of walking to equal the calorie burn of higher intensity cardio. There are also the cardiovascular fitness benefits of intense cardio. It’s mind blowing how much cardio fitness can be developed with very high intensity cardio training. This will never be equaled with low intensity cardio or walking.
I think the best all-around fitness and body composition program has a combination of training types; weight training first priority, formal cardio training second priority (at different intensity levels including high intensity), and non exercise activity (NEAT) third priority. What I would like to see in the fitness world is more attention given to NEAT and high intensity training advocates not dismissing the value of lower intensity exercise as part of the mix.
On paper, the concept of energy balance is simple, but in practice, balancing calories in versus calories out it easier said than done. Part of the reason is that most people have no clue about how many calories they burn each day and how inactive they really are. Most people think being an endomorph is some kind of genetic curse that they have no control over. They have no idea what NEAT is and how much it contributes to their level of fatness or leanness. Even those who do understand NEAT can’t manage it if they don’t measure it. Gadgets like pedometers provide the tool for awareness, measurement, management, motivation and accountability.
I have to admit, I tested out a pedometer for a few months partly for my readers but I also wondered whether walking more and tracking steps would be of any real value to someone like me – a bodybuilder – in terms of improving my physique. My answer after experimenting is, yes, of course it helps with fat loss. By bumping up my activity and walking – outside the gym – I definitely stayed leaner without dieting (I lost a pound the first month, without trying to).
However, don’t expect walking a little bit more every day to completely transform your physique. If you want a muscular, athletic looking physique, it’s the weight training that’s going to literally reshape your body and build the lean muscle; walking just can’t do that. Also, your nutrition is unquestionably the most important factor in the fat loss side of physique transformation. You can’t out lift, out train, out run or out walk a lousy diet.
The formula I always preach: weight training + cardio training + nutrition = body transformation. Add the “mental training / motivation” side and you have Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.
What walking more and focusing on NEAT more can do, is when added on top of weight training and high intensity training, it can help accelerate fat loss to a modest, but even higher degree on top of your formal workouts. I also think increasing step counts will provide a huge benefit if not be an ideal strategy – for weight loss maintenance for the formerly obese.
For many people, the best part is that short walks and increased activity throughout the day add up over time without feeling like work, let alone like torture. No, you don’t need to earn an “I puked” T shirt for completing your workout. You really can, as Dr. James Levine says, “move a little and lose a lot.” It just takes time, consistency and a new habit mentality – and as it turns out – technology for once, may actually help us get more active, not less.
Fat Loss Resources:
Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle: Burn more, eat more: The fat burning techniques of bodybuilders and fitness models (ebook)
The Body Fat Solution By Tom Venuto (hardcover)
The Body Fat Solution by Tom Venuto (kindle)
Fit Bit (pedometer)