Trick question: What is the only rule you need to follow if you want to lose weight?
Let me give you a hint: it is so simple that almost every diet guru denies its effectiveness so they can sell you on the magic of their unique eating style.
If you guessed the rule is that you need to burn more calories than you consume, you guessed correctly.
Congratulations. You have successfully internalized the first law of weight loss.
Most people understand that you need to consume fewer calories than you burn if you want to lose weight. However, the practical application of this simple theory is not always so straightforward.
If it were, everybody who wanted to be lean would be.
Understanding calorie expenditure.
Most people think they need to follow a structured exercise program if they want to lose weight. However, the calories you burn during exercise are just one part of the calorie expenditure for the whole day.
And what you do outside your gym sessions is more important. Why?
The answer will become apparent when you understand the different components of energy expenditure.
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)
Your resting metabolic rate describes the calories your body burns when you are entirely at rest. It encompasses all the energy you expend to keep your body alive and functioning. It does not include any activity like walking around or playing guitar.
Your resting metabolic rate depends on age, gender, and health, among other things. Physical activity and the amount of muscle you carry can increase your RMR.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEFF)
The food you eat carries energy. Not all of this energy can be used by your brain and body. Why? Because your body needs to break down the foods you eat into smaller components and transport individual nutrients across your body.
And this processing of food requires energy.
How much energy your body expends to digest the food you eat depends on the type of food. Generally speaking, the less processed the food, the more energy your body needs to digest.
But macronutrients matter too. Protein has the highest thermic effect of food of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA)
The thermic effect of activity refers to the calories you burn from exercise. This could include any type of structured exercise, like lifting weights, going for a run, or attending a CrossFit class.
How much TEA contributes to your calorie expenditure depends on the type of exercise you engage in, the frequency, and the duration.
Your body weight and the amount of muscle mass you have also play a role. Generally, the taller you are, the more you weigh, and the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn during exercise.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
Now we get to the fun part of this article.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis refers to all the calories your burn when you move “accidentally” throughout the day.
This includes all types of movements outside your structured exercise sessions. Walking from your couch to the fridge, fidgeting, dancing while cooking, and gardening all fall under this category.
It’s easy to see why non-exercise activity thermogenesis is one of the most underrated yet essential ways to increase your daily energy expenditure.
The beauty of NEAT is that it doesn’t require a gym membership, no changing of clothes, or even “making time” for it.
You also can hardly overdo NEAT. Simply moving more throughout your day will not leave you so fatigued that you need to plan for rest and recovery.
And the calorie-burning effect can be substantial. And even for people who exercise regularly, being aware of how much you move throughout the day is vital.
What you do outside the gym matters more than what you do during your workout time.
Move more throughout your day.
We all benefit from moving more.
And the easiest way to include more movement is to adjust your lifestyle. Instead of driving everywhere, take the bike more often.
Instead of sitting at a desk for 8-10 hours per day, stand up for a while and take regular breaks to do a set of bodyweight squats, run up a flight of stairs, or take a walk around the block.
Instead of sitting down when calling your friends, go for a walk.
The options for adding more movement to your day are endless. Get creative.
And if you think you are already moving around enough or don’t have enough time to include more movement, try the following exercise: For three to five days, track your time.
Write down all the activities you engage in.
Include everything from getting up in the morning to having breakfast, working your day job, to your evening activities. Note down if you are sitting down, standing up, or moving around.
Once you have logged three to five days, sit down and analyze where you can include more movement.
Where could you take the bike instead of public transport? Could you go for a walk during your lunch break? During which activities can you stand rather than sit down? And when could you include small movement breaks throughout the day?
It may not seem as effective as a challenging workout that revamps your heart rate or gives you a decent muscle pump. But small steps add up. Literally 😉.