Whether you're one of the many trying to bounce back from the "Quarantine 19" pandemic weight gain or simply looking for ways to improve your fitness, you may want to consider more than the traditional go-to methods of healthier foods and weekly workouts. Why? Because according to Jacob Linn, fitness expert and personal trainer at MU Health Care, the ways our bodies burn calories are pretty complex, and when it comes to getting the most out of your fitness, it's actually the non-workout, non-food moments that have had the biggest impact.
Let's break it down:
Energy = Calories Burned
In order to maintain an ideal body weight, you want to achieve what's called energy balance: the ratio of calories you take in through food and beverages equal to the number of calories you burn through exercise and daily activities.
On the simplest of terms, the equation looks something like this:
- Consuming more calories than you burn = weight gain.
- Burning more calories than you consume = weight loss.
- Consuming the same number of calories as you expend = energy balance.
For most Americans, when the balance is thrown off, it tends to lean toward the weight gain side. And although "recalibration" efforts usually focus on meal plans and workout routines, according to Linn, cutting calories and exercising for hours may only give you a nudge in the right direction. That's because the amount of energy you burn from exercise only makes up a small portion of your overall caloric impact.
The number of calories burned is a product of four different types of energy, each carrying their own weight. Out of the four, there are two that are mostly out of your control:
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR): BMR, which accounts for about 60% of the calories you burn in a day, is the amount of energy your body burns to support automatic functions such as breathing, circulating blood and turning over skin cells.
- Thermic effect of food (TEF): This is how much energy your body uses to digest the food you eat. And although you can slightly impact TEF with the types of food you eat (for instance, protein takes more energy to burn than sugar), it still only accounts for about 10% of the total calories you burn in a day.
Then there are the two you can control directly:
- Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT): EAT is the amount of energy you burn when you're working out. Whether you're pumping iron at the gym or heading out for a brisk walk, your EAT only amounts to about 5-10% of your energy expenditure.
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): NEAT reflects all the activities you do during the day that aren't part of your workout routine — things like doing dishes and laundry, gardening, washing the car and playing with your kids. Together they add up to about whopping 20% of your daily calorie burn.
Let's put this into context. For many, the pandemic brought about a welcome work-from-home flexibility. And while that means you can add a daytime run or basement workout (i.e., EAT energy) to your fitness routine, you might not be factoring in the missed activity boosts you used to get from the in-office trips to the bathroom, meetings and parking lot (i.e., NEAT energy).
NEAT Ways to Boost Energy Output
Whether you find the news encouraging (yay for not having to double my workouts to get back into my work pants) or slightly discouraging (do I really have to give up my newfound love for grocery pickup?), the keys to achieving a more ideal energy balance, according to Linn: Control the controllable and focus primarily on NEAT energy.
- Get moving. It doesn't matter how often you hit the gym, as long as you focus on moving as much as you can. So mop the floor, take some extra laps around the house and get out in the yard. If you really work your muscles, you may be able to burn just as much energy pruning (or overhauling) your garden as you would with a standard gym routine.
- Focus on strength training. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn, even when you're just watching TV. Daily muscle-building activities — lifting weights (or a small child!), working with resistance bands, lunges, squats and pushups — will help you build and keep body mass while boosting your metabolism.
- Choose high-intensity exercise. When it comes to working out, choose high-intensity activities like spin classes, interval training and circuit training. According to Linn, when you work out at a level more intense than your body can maintain, your metabolic system plays catch-up even after your workout, which means more NEAT calorie burning.
- Eat whole foods. Eating more whole foods, especially fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, and avoiding highly processed foods can boost your TEF and support your overall health. Protein — whether plant-based or animal — requires more energy to digest than either carbohydrates or fat.
Next Steps and Useful Resources
- Learn more about the fitness training services Jacob Linn and his team offer at MU Health Care's Human Performance Program.
- Read more about pandemic weight gain.