Scientific Cardio To Maximize Fat Loss

Jacob M. Wilson, M.S., CSCS, and Gabriel J. Wilson, M.S., CSCS

Part 2:  Nonexercise-Activity Thermogenesis

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Cardiovascular exercise is one of the more difficult aspects of bodybuilding, but it’s a necessity if you want to get shredded. In Part 1 of this series we discussed top-flight scientific information and the benefits of both moderate and high-intensity cardio for optimum fat loss. In this installment we’ll discuss the science behind an activity that, surprisingly, you perform away from the gym.


First let’s go back a few years, when Jacob had the privilege of attending a unique presentation at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. The speakers included world-renowned experts on how activity can determine individual body composition. Normally during a presentation one person speaks while his or her colleagues sit in their designated seats awaiting their turns. What intrigued the crowd was that the speakers were all standing during the entire discussion, even when they weren’t speaking. Even more interesting was that, as the presentation continued, the audience began to stand until by the end of the presentation all had abandoned their chairs. Why? Read on.

A “NEAT” Approach to Increasing Energy Expenditure

As hardcore readers of IRON MAN are aware, the most important variable in determining whether you gain or lose weight is the number of calories in vs. calories out. Calories in are determined by diet, and calories out are determined by many variables, including basal metabolic rate, the thermic effect of food and activity-induced thermogenesis.1

Basal metabolic rate is the energy you expel while at rest and averages out to be about 60 percent of total energy used in a given day. Studies show that the difference between individuals’ basal metabolic rates, such as what makes one person expend more calories than another, is explained mainly by differences in mass.2 The thermic effect of food is the energy required to digest, process and assimilate it; that accounts for 10 to 15 percent of calories expended in a given day.

The final category can be further divided into exercise-activity and nonexercise-activity thermogenesis, the latter usually called NEAT. NEAT involves activities that are physical but that fall outside of deliberate exercise and include movements such as pacing, fiddling, typing, talking, standing, tying your shoes—the little ordinary things that everyone does. Studies indicate that NEAT may explain most of the difference between individuals in terms of their total energy expended. Indeed, the effects of NEAT range from 15 to 50 percent of total calories burned in a given day.1,2 So you want to maximize it in your daily life.

What Affects NEAT

How much NEAT people get in a given day appears to be affected by three primary factors: environment, genetics and diet. Environmental factors increase or deter opportunities for NEAT. As you would expect, the weather has a major influence on NEAT, which doubles in the summer compared to winter months. Likewise, a physically active occupation will result in greater NEAT than a desk job.

Lastly, the creation of such labor-saving devices as dishwashers, washing machines and elevators has dramatically reduced NEAT in our country. Researchers have found a strong relationship between labor-saving devices and obesity. Studies show that individuals who do not rely heavily on labor-saving devises can expend enough extra calories in a given year to metabolize nearly 12 pounds of fat. To make that point clear, you need look only at how it affects metabolism. Just going from a seated to standing position and even activities like chewing gum increase metabolic rate by about 10 to 15 percent above rest. Fidgeting increases metabolism by 40 percent, while walking one, two or three miles an hour increases the metabolic rate by 100, 150 or 200 percent, respectively. Taking the stairs raises your metabolism by 200 percent, meaning that the next time you’re tempted to take the elevator—well, don’t.3

From a genetics perspective, there’s a positive relationship between leanness and greater levels of NEAT. That may be because people who tend to gain weight more easily and thus carry more fat have a harder time moving. When obese people lose weight, they still don’t perform as much NEAT as their lean counterparts.