When it comes to weight loss, most people are aware that they need to be in a calorie deficit in order for the number on the scale to reduce, meaning that calories burned must exceed those consumed. Whilst I have discussed the difficulty in accurately calculating your calorific intake in a previous blog, this particular piece regards the calculation of total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and more importantly the role that non exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) plays.

As its name suggests, TDEE is the total number of calories burnt or consumed in a 24 hour period and is composed of four parts. The first and largest section of the total is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and this relates to the number of calories burnt at rest and for your body to function and maintain homeostasis and includes such activities as the beating of your heart, brain activity and metabolism.

Next is the thermic effect of food, and is defined as the energy required for digestion, absorption, and disposal of ingested nutrients. Its magnitude depends on the composition of the food consumed; protein tends to be 20-30% of the calories ingested, carbohydrates 5-10% and fats 3-7%, though overall it is generalized to amount to the region of 10% of total calories.

The final two categories come under the general heading of activity energy expenditure and include exercise undertaken. Now it may come as some surprise when you look at the graphic at the beginning of this blog to see that exercise actually makes up a small piece of the TDEE pie (so to speak, pun intended!), when for years exercise has been assumed to be a great way to burn calories and get into the shape of your life. Whist there are a myriad of benefits to exercise and it should be encouraged at every turn, to use it as the main factor in weight loss can in fact prove to be somewhat unfruitful. Which leads us nicely on to the reason for this blog, namely non exercise activity thermogenesis.

When we exercise we do indeed burn calories, but at a lot lower rate than most expect. Whist cardio training can be a good calorie burn, it should be noted that a good resistance session may only burn in the region of 300-350 calories, which is a lot less than most people think is burned when asked. As already stated exercise, whether cardiovascular or resistance based, is so beneficial for the body and should be encouraged, but for the purpose of weight loss is in fact not the best method, contrary to popular belief. There are also two other points worth remembering with regards to exercise and calories. Firstly, exercise increases your appetite and makes you hungry as your body looks to replenish the energy it has just expended, and there is also the other danger of using food as a reward for the exercise. How many times have you thought “I’ve worked well in the gym today/had a good run so I’ve earned that cream cake/extra custard cream with my cuppa”? Kinda negates the calories burned off during your ‘great session’ and does nothing to help your weight loss goals.

The second point worth considering is exercises’ effect on NEAT. After a tough workout, you will subconsciously be less inclined to fidget, walk the dog as far as usual and may in fact simply feel like flopping on the sofa in front of the tv happy in the knowledge that you’ve done your bit for the day. Now I am certainly not suggesting that you reading this are lazy, but the body is a clever machine and will conserve energy after exercise in small ways that we often do not notice consciously and this can greatly reduce our levels of NEAT which constitutes the majority of our active energy expenditure. Now this will not be true of everybody, as some people are simply just full of energy and constantly on the go regardless, but for the average person, particularly one new to exercise or looking to lose some excess weight, this is a factor which must be considered. Conscious effort must be made to stay active for the remainder of the day and this is perhaps where the step counters come into their own as maintaining 10000 steps or making small increases is great motivator to keep the NEAT rate up when perhaps you’ rather not be ‘staying active’. If exercise constitutes 4% of your day (and do we exercise every day?) and NEAT around 60%, it follows that perhaps there is more to losing weight than simply exercising and hoping that the calories will fall off. There’s a lot to the old saying that you can’t out-train a bad diet, and therein lies the truth. Diet is by far the best way to control weight and help tip the calories in/out equation in your favour by tracking calories in, but that is a much lengthier subject and one which every z list celebrity and so called social media ‘expert’ will be more than happy to offer an opinion. Suffice to say that most diets have their good and bad points, but ultimately it must be sustainable, enjoyable and calorie appropriate for long term success, so please don’t get caught up in the latest fad diet that promises six pack abs in 3 weeks!

Sounds like I’m giving exercise a bad rep here, but nothing could be further from the truth. Train hard at your chosen sport/exercise and enjoy the rewards, the successes, the wins, the gains, the feel good endorphins, the camaraderie, the ‘me time’, the relief when its over(!), the wellbeing, the bone strengthening, the empowerment, the self confidence…. I could go on, just please don’t rely on it alone to shed the pounds!

Train well, eat well, stay safe and most of all keep neat!


I am a fully qualified Personal Trainer with over 22 years’ experience. Find out more about my specific training and qualifications or book a personal training session.

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