The Power of Non-Exercise Physical Activity

I know I talk here quite a bit about my exercise activities and how important it is for me to exercise regularly.  And, that is true.  It is true from a health standpoint and I tend to lose more weight when I’m exercising regularly. But, today, I want to talk about burning more calories through activity other than exercise and why it is so important to weight loss.

During my weight loss journey, I’ve noticed I don’t burn as many calories as many of the calculators that estimate TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) predict I would burn. For example, this calculator estimates my TDEE (without exercise) at 1484.  In reality, Fitbit shows me my TDEE on days that I don’t exercise can be under 1400 calories.  In fact, I had one day in April that was 1309 for calorie burn!

So, what is the answer?  I think it is due to my low levels of NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) and NEPA (non-exercise physical activity). NEAT are the calories you burn other than sleeping, eating and sports-like exercise. Some people use the term NEPA instead. (Others seem to use NEPA for purposeful non-exercise physical activity and use NEAT to include things like fidgeting).

Anyway, what I’ve been aware of is that my NEAT/NEPA is low.  I live in a one story house.  I work from home at a desk.  My preferred activities are sedentary.  For example, some things I like to do: Read, write this blog, surf the Web, play World of Warcraft.  In terms of household jobs, I don’t do dusting or vacuuming due to my allergies.  I do tasks more like bill paying and handling the finances (more sitting).  I’m not a big cook and used to eat a lot of frozen meals.  I do much less of that now, but I cook things that are fast to cook.  I’m not a big TV watcher, but I can easily sit at my computer for the whole day. I don’t even fidget very much.  So, my NEAT/NEPA is very low.

Contrast me with someone else, who is my same age, height and weight.  She works in an office.  She has to walk quite a distance from the parking garage to her office.  Once she is there, she has a job where she moves around a lot during the day.  She goes to the nearby mall for lunch and often window shops a little before walking to the food court.  When she gets home, she enjoys cooking meals that take a lot longer than mine.  She does all the house cleaning. During the little free time she has, she likes to garden. Even without purposeful exercise, she burns a whole lot more calories than do.  If she and I both eat the same amount of calories, she will naturally lose more weight than I do, simply because her NEAT/NEPA is higher than mine.

I had a recent experience that allowed me to compare me to me.

Fitbit 4-30-2015

The above is my activity on April 30.  I burned 1966 calories which is great for me.  I used the treadmill for 55 minutes and Fitbit said I had 60 active minutes (basically those are moderate or higher intensity minutes of at least 10 minutes duration) for the day. My total activity calories were 933.  You might think that my higher calorie burn was because of the exercise.

It did make a difference.  Fitbit says that during that exercise I burned 294 calories.  Deducting what I would have burned if I had just sat during that time, I earned about an extra 244 calories from the exercise.  My BMR (basal metabolic rate) according to Mifflin St. Jeor that day was about 1237, so I burned about 1481 calories from a combination of BMR and exercise.  The other 487 calories was from NEAT/NEPA.

Contrast that with April 16th:

Fitbit 4-16-2015

On that day, I burned 1721 calories and my activity calories were 593.  I actually walked on the treadmill for 63 minutes and had 72 active minutes.  In fact, Fitbit says I burned 345 calories walking on the treadmill, of which 288 were more than what I would have earned just sitting.  For that day, I weighed a little more, so my BMR per Mifflin St. Jeor was 1241 and the exercise added 288 to give me a total of 1529 calories burned from BMR plus exercise.  My NEAT/NEPA calories to get to a total of 1721 calories burned for the day would have been 192 calories.

In short, my non-exercise activity on April 30 was 487 calories, while it was only 192 on April 16!  This is why I burned 245 calories more on April 30, even though I burned more exercise calories on April 16.  If I burned an extra 245 calories a day everyday, I would lose about an extra 2 pounds a month! So what was different about those two days?

This.  That was the day that I did this:

Clothes

I went through all of my clothes and discarded a bunch of them and then arranged my closet and drawers.  If you looked at my heart rate graph for 4/30, you can see several spikes where it was elevated from noon until 4 pm.  That was working on my clothes.  The spikes in the evening were exercise.  If you look on my 4/16 graph, there aren’t many spikes during the day.  The only sustained raised heart rate was during exercise in the evening.

So.  What I learned from this was that I burned 295 more NEAT/NEPA calories on 4/30 than I did on 4/16 and it was all attributable to my decluttering activity that day.  I loved the fact I burned more than 1900 calories that day.  But, doing that is usually a struggle for me and usually requires a lot of exercise, plus going somewhere during the day where I do a lot of walking (grocery shopping, going to the mall, and so on).  The thing is that I don’t usually need to go shopping most days.  I go grocery shopping once or twice a week.  In many weeks, that is the only shopping I need to do or what I need to do doesn’t take much walking, such as going to the pharmacy or going out to eat.  In fact, I buy a lot of things online and it takes no time to pick up the package from Amazon at the front door.

I don’t do a lot of outdoors non-exercise activity (I have a lot of allergies).  And, as mentioned, my home activities tend to be sedentary.  I think about my dad when he was alive.  He rarely sat down.  He was always working in the yard or finding something to do that involved movement.  Me?  Not so much.

What has become clear to me is that this is why I usually lose less than half a pound a week, even when exercising.  When I don’t exercise (like last fall), I can go into a plateau and lose little or nothing.  When I do exercise, if I do the 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise that I see recommended, I do a little better, but still don’t do that well. Looking at one recent week about a month ago where I exercised for 151 minutes, my calorie burn per day per Fitbit was: 1444, 1544, 1353, 1619, 1605, 1309, and 1562.  The 4 days above 1500 were the days I exercised.  Still my average per day was 1491, even with the exercise.  I’m not going to be losing a whole lot with that kind of calorie burn.

To really consistently lose more than half a pound week, I need to increase exercise and increase NEAT/NEPA.  April 16 is a good example showing that I can burn over 1700 calories in a day if I increase my exercise to about an hour.  If I did that 7 days a week (which I don’t since I usually exercise 5 or 6 days), I could lose half a pound a week.  To get much above that, though, I have to exercise even more and/or I have to increase NEAT/NEPA. Last week, I actually did exercise an average of 69 minutes a day (although I did it over 5 days, taking 2 days off). So, I am exercising more than 150 minutes a week.

Still, it seems to me that the real payoff will come with my increasing my activity other than exercise.  I already do try to get up every hour and at least move around the house.  The days I consistently do that I do better on calorie burn.  But, what really will help is doing more sustained activities during the day that will burn more calories.

I haven’t yet figured out how to do that.  I can’t just go shopping every day.  I don’t need more stuff and the budget wouldn’t like it either.  And, I can’t really do things that get my allergies going.  Still, I need to figure out something.  Right now, I am using the KonMari method to declutter and organize the house.  Currently, I’m working on papers which is fairly sedentary.  The next few things should be more active.  After that, I’m not sure.  I may start cooking a lot more. So, I would get more from that.  Also, doing more to keep the house looking nice.  While I can’t vacuum or dust, I can pick up.

The point is that this is just an example of how our individual lifestyles – apart from exercise – have a powerful effect on how many calories we burn and how much we ultimately lose.

Comments

  1. Summer says

    Interesting post. I’m already thinking about how to increase my non-exercise activity. Maybe next time I have to unload the car, I will make multiple trips instead of trying to carry it all at once.

  2. says

    The original pedometer I had was an Omron, and one thing I liked, was it showed “aerobic” steps, in addition to the step total. I’d subtract my aerobic steps, and aim for 10K of non-exercise activity. That is really hard to get to! But I’ve read other studies that say so often people get into the mindset of “oh, I’m exercising” that they are sedentary the rest of the time!

    I always try to park my car pretty far out in the lot. As I did my grocery shopping today, I did go up and down every aisle. I really need to spend more cleaning time, I know hubs would appreciate that! 🙂 I love seeing my little 9 and 11 year olds, who I have given Fitbits to … they never really “exercise” but they sure can get in the steps!
    JenB recently posted…Fitbit FriendsMy Profile

    • says

      Yes, I like that using my Fitbit I can figure out my non-exercise activity calorie burn (just takes a little basic math). And, I really don’t do great on it many days. Today should be good though. I went shopping to buy a dress for a wedding I’m going to (I hate clothes shopping) and this afternoon I’m working on the decluttering.
      Kitty recently posted…The Power of Non-Exercise Physical ActivityMy Profile

  3. Stacey says

    I know this is an old post, but I like to read blogs the same way that you do – find one with a bit of a back-log and start at the beginning 🙂 I stumbled upon your blog through Google when searching for something Weight Watchers related. It took me to one of your recent posts on Smartpoints, which I read and enjoyed. So I went back and started at the beginning!

    Anyway. I usually don’t comment on old posts, but this one really struck me; I feel as though I must comment. Not with some huge revelation, or grand declaration, but just to let you know that you have made me stop and think about how much activity I really get in. This strikes a cord in me that the simple declaration of “move more” does not; this is the REASON to move more, and it truly makes a difference.

    I love your analyses. You have inspired me to begin tracking calories as well, instead of just points. If only because you can’t recognize trends and solve problems if you don’t have the information!

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