When it come to losing weight, it is pretty simple; eat less than you are burning on a daily basis. Or as many of you have probably heard, it all comes down to calories in vs. calories out. The simplicity of this though is usually masked by the difficulty of the lifestyle change, but for the sake of today, we are going to just look at what goes into the calories you burn on a daily basis, and how we can increase that. Too many people lower their calories until they are at a near starvation level, versus the healthier option of working on their daily caloric output. And for most, I find increasing the daily caloric burn is not only the healthier and more sustainable option, but also the more enjoyable route. We all like food, and there is no getting around that. The human body wants to eat and we also love the dopamine release tasty food gives us. This does not mean we can exercise off a bad diet, but it does mean we can stay full and satisfied with our diet as long as we are using other modalities to burn the calories off. So to get to our main point; what goes into our daily caloric output? When we break it down, it comes to 3 main factors:
- Resting Metabolic Rate
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT)
Resting Metabolic Rate
Our resting metabolic rate (or RMR), simplified, is the amount of calories you would burn on a daily basis if all you did was sleep and watch TV. It is the amount of calories our body burns on a daily basis just to keep us alive and functioning, and you would be surprised on just how high the caloric output of our RMR is. Take for example a 45 year old female that is 170lbs., 5’5”, and no particular health issues (as thyroid, diabetes, hormones, and other health factors can play into this). If this female was to live as a vegetable, only sleeping and watching TV, they would burn 1414 calories on a daily basis. For most of you reading this, that probably was a slight shocker in that it seems fairly high, but it goes to show just how much we eat as Americans. A whole article could be written on this topic, but almost every study on the subject of the amount of calories people actually eat versus what they report they eat, shows that they drastically underrate the amount of calories they are in-taking (usually with reported deviations of over 1000 calories off). This does not mean everyone is lying, what it more entails is that most people are very unaware of the amount of calories that is in their food, and how to properly track that. But to get back on track, our resting metabolic rate does make up a large portion of our daily caloric output. If we take the example above, for that particular female to lose 1lb. a week without any additional activity, she would need to eat 900 calories per day, which is just not feasible (there is 3,500 calories in 1lb. of fat, which would then need a deficit of 500 calories per day to lose 1lb. a week). This is well below starvation level, and not only will hunger be an issue, but she will also be greatly deprived of sufficient vitamins and minerals that her body needs to function correctly. Our resting metabolic rate is fairly permanent and very few things change it. Medical conditions can lower your resting metabolic rate, but there is no magic pill you can take that can raise it, which is opposite of what many of these gimmick companies want you to believe. The only true and healthy way you can improve your resting metabolic rate is by adding lean tissue to your body, also known as muscle. The more muscle we have, the more our body now has to feed, so in the end it means we burn more calories on a daily basis. And the only way to add muscle is through progressive resistance training.
If you would like to get an estimate of what your own RMR is, check out:
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
The next factor on our list that will help to increase our daily caloric output is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT). NEAT is the calories you burn through any non-exercise daily activity that is in addition to your resting metabolic rate. The single largest contributor, for most, when it comes to NEAT is your occupation. If you are a construction worker, or any occupation in particular where you are on your feet a lot, you will have a significantly higher caloric output from NEAT than a desk worker. Using myself as an example, with my move to Springfield I have had to decrease my daily caloric intake by about 300 calories per day to maintain the same weight. I came from a Personal Training position in St. Louis where I had a full schedule of clients from 9am to 7pm, constantly on my feet and having to rack and re-rack weights. Now in Springfield, I have changed my schedule to 7am to 2pm, and also have fewer clients since I am brand new to the area. I work out the same amount I did before, but now I am sitting for a larger portion of the day, which based on my experimentation with tracking my calories, equates to 300 calories a day less I now burn.
NEAT is also extremely important because around 70% of the calories you burn through NEAT are from fat, versus during exercise, that drops to only about 5-10% of calories. Now I am definitely not saying to skip exercise and just add more non-exercise activity, but what I am saying is that the calories you burn through your daily activity are the most efficient calories to burn when it comes to weight loss, as almost all of it is fat. That’s why you probably have friends who don’t even exercise, yet changed their nutrition, stop sitting around so much, and they still lost a bunch of weight. Exercise is a great tool, but we are just skimming the surface of our capabilities if we are just adding exercise to our regimen and ignoring our lack of non-exercise activity. We can’t change our occupation, but we can change our daily habits. Park farther away at the grocery store, use the stairs and not the elevator, play with your kids versus watching TV, buy a standing desk versus sitting all day, walk around while talking on the phone versus sitting, stop online shopping and go to mall instead, and the list could go on. Just find ways to get up and move throughout the day. At first it will take some thought and willpower, but eventually it will just become natural. When it comes to planning for weight loss, this is usually what most people ignore. They add exercise and they change their diets, but their non-exercise activity level stays the same. This is where the real game changer is if you really make some large scale changes to your daily movement, as you can see with my example, it was 300 calories worth of change in the wrong direction that I now need to address.
I hope I haven’t downplayed exercise too much so far, as it is very important. It is just that exercise is the very obvious addition that everyone knows they need to add in when it comes to weight loss, whereas RMR and NEAT are the often ignored factors that go into our daily caloric output. Our non-exercise activity is very low intensity, which means it takes a lot to make a big dent in our caloric output. Burning an extra 300 calories over the portion of a 16 hour day is not very time efficient. Exercise on the other hand can be where we are very time efficient when it comes to burning a lot of calories in a very short period of time. 30 minutes of high intensity exercise can burn those same 300 calories, but now in a fraction of the time.
Exercise is also the modality that can be used to permanently improve your resting metabolic rate, and that is through progressive resistance training. Many people shy away from resistance training at first, as it is more complex, and frankly at first it does give you the same immediate results as cardio can. The reason for this is because resistance training many times has to start at a very baseline level, where the workouts do not necessarily burn very many calories. Progression must occur before strength and endurance improves, and then sufficient intensity can be added to your weight training regimen. In the long run, resistance training is the way to go, but you just have to have the right mindset that this is a marathon, not a sprint, or you can easily get trapped in the negativity of not seeing the immediate and drastic results that we all want.
So to take a lot of information and condense it into 3 simple points:
- Resting Metabolic Rate is where the vast majority of our daily caloric output comes from, and the only healthy and true way to increase your RMR is through the addition of lean muscle mass.
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is often the most neglected aspect of how we can increase our daily caloric output. To make it simple, get up and stay active. Don’t sit around and just let your RMR do all the work.
- Exercise is the most time efficient way to burn large amounts of calories. It is usually the first thing addressed for that reason, but don’t make the mistake of just stopping there. Make sure to work on improving your RMR and NEAT as well.
And then with that, here are 3 take home points of how to apply this to your fitness journey:
- If you feel you are eating “too little”, learn to track your calories on a weekly basis correctly, count everything, and even weigh everything if need be. It may shock you just how much you are eating, caloric wise.
- Take 1 day this week and make a log of any and all non-exercise activity you have throughout the day. Also track the amount of time you spend sitting. Go over this in detail and figure out where you can make changes to improve your activity level.
- Start working out if you are already not. It is the easiest and quickest way to burn calories fast. Commit to a certain amount of days exercising at the gym, and do it, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. A personal trainer I follow on Instagram has a great way of putting this, “Tell yourself you’ll go to the gym for just 5 minutes today, that’s no time at all. If you end up going for just 5 minutes, that’s great, you succeeded on what you set out to do. Most likely you’ll stay longer though.”
Now it is time for you to take this information and apply it to yourself and think about how you can improve. Small and simple improvements lead to long term growth and development, so start small and work your way up. Decide today that you are going to park a bit farther away at work, tomorrow add in that from 10:30am-10:40am you are going to stand at your desk and work rather than sit, and the list can go on. Keep adding those up and over the long haul, you will be a calorie burning machine. Best of luck with your journey, and let me know if you have any questions or if there is anything I can do to help!