You probably know someone who eats a lot and struggles to put on weight, while you get fat eating less. Common wisdom would say they have a faster metabolism, but it turns out that’s unlikely. Here’s the reality and how you can use it to your advantage.
Energy expenditure can be simplified into three categories.
- Basal metabolism – the energy required to power all your internal processes and simply exist.
- Exercise – voluntary and deliberate physical activity.
- Non exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – this is basically everything else including moving yourself through the world and unconscious movement.
Control of body composition
It’s generally assumed getting in shape requires a diet and exercise. Beyond that, we either have a fast metabolism or we don’t. The lucky ones have an easier time with fat loss, while the rest of us have to eat less and do more cardio.
However, the truth is metabolism doesn’t normally vary between people much.
Metabolic rate does vary, and technically there could be large variance. However, statistically speaking it is unlikely the variance would apply to you. The majority of the population exists in a range of 200-300kcal from each other and do not possess hugely different metabolic rates.
So if we allow for a normal amount of exercise, what accounts for the ability of some to churn through calories?
The answer is they spontaneously move more, which falls under item 3 on the list above: NEAT.
The power of NEAT
This study measured how much energy people burned when lying, sitting, and standing still. Then they added fidgeting to the latter two conditions and remeasured.
Compared to lying still, average energy expenditure increased:
- 4% sitting still.
- 13% standing still.
- 54% sitting while fidgeting.
- 94% standing while fidgeting.
In this study people were overfed 1000 Calories per day.
There was a tenfold difference in how much fat people gained.
Again, most of the difference was attributed to NEAT. In people who gained the least, the overfeeding stimulated a higher willingness to move.
Both of those studies yielded eye-opening results. We’re not talking about running a marathon here, just mindless activity, but the increase in energy burn was massive.
So what, you might say. All this NEAT stuff is interesting, but my body seems quite content to sit on the couch completely immobile.
However, small behavior and habit changes can add up to make quite a difference to energy expenditure. Here are some ideas.
Sitting vs standing
If you spend your day sitting you could incorporate periods of standing. And you don’t need to spend thousands on a fancy standing desk. There are affordable sit-to-stand desk converters that you can raise and lower.
Personally, I’ve elevated my computer on a plastic box that contained an online order my girlfriend made. Not the most elegant solution, but it does the job.
Based on the studies above, fidgeting is powerful.
I found it was possible to train myself into the habit, the easiest way being to jiggle my legs. When I’m sitting, I move my knees in and out, or raise my heels off the floor with my calves alternately (as if practicing double-kick on a bass drum).
If I’m standing, I move my knees back and forward. (This doesn’t only burn more energy, but it’s more comfortable. Standing in one position too long gets achy.)
Avoid the easy option
Whenever you practically can:
- Sit instead of lie.
- Stand instead of sit.
- Walk instead of stand.
- Walk instead of drive.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Park a bit further away from your destination to walk more even when you do have to drive.
The “sitting is the new smoking” headlines are stupid, but not without truth. Studies show inactivity is very unhealthy.
Burning more calories for cosmetic goals or to eat more food is one thing, but much more importantly physical activity cuts disease risk.
Wake up call
It seems like such an obvious fact that metabolism varies a lot between people. As such, I thought my bases were covered with the hour or so I worked out. For the rest of the time I was basically happy to sit.
I even thought suggestions like parking a bit further away when you do your shopping were ridiculous—just second-rate options for people who couldn’t be bothered to exercise. And I assumed the low calories I had to diet on were just a genetic curse.
However, we have the science now, and I’ve had to change my understanding. All little bits of activity mount up to have a huge effect, and any way you can squeeze more movement into your life should be embraced.
It’s powerful knowledge, and can be leveraged to great effect, especially if you’re someone who’s struggled with being overweight.