When fat loss has stalled, should you cut more calories or spend more time at the gym? Maybe neither. Here’s what often works best.
One contest prep coach I know had a client who was following his diet to the letter, but wasn’t getting in shape fast enough. His caloric intake was already low and his workouts were already taxing, so starving him more and training him harder was off the table. Too many drawbacks there, like potential muscle loss.
So why had his fat loss stalled out? And how did the coach fix it? Well, it turns out that the client had failed to mention that his job had changed. He’d gone from working outside, where he had to do a lot of walking, to working inside, where he did very little.
That alone was the difference in why he wasn’t getting lean at the expected rate. He was simply moving around less outside of the gym.
That “moving around” is called NEAT or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. If your diet and training are on point yet you can’t seem to drop those last few pounds of fat, NEAT is your key to the city of Shredsville.
Your total daily caloric expenditure comes from a variety of things:
- Your basal metabolic rate: the energy you expend to just stay alive.
- Intentional exercise: the energy you expend during workouts.
- The thermic effect of food or TEF: what your body expends to digest and assimilate nutrients.
- Your NEAT: the energy you expend moving around.
All these together account for your caloric output. And a recent study shows that those people with a high level of “energy-out” are the ones that lose fat and keep it off for over 10 years (1).
So, eating less and less really isn’t the solution for losing fat and keeping it off. Eat less and move more is, in fact, quite accurate. But maybe it’s more accurate to say, “Eat less, move more consistently… and not just at the gym.”
It’s NEAT that may be the biggest factor in sustaining your fat loss. If you’re working out and eating reasonably okay, it’s quite possible that the reason you’re not shedding fat is because, outside of the gym, your activity levels make a hibernating bear look like a hyperactive three-year-old.
With life now consisting of desk jobs or other sedentary forms of employment, average energy expenditure outside of the gym is low. If that sounds like you, NEAT is probably what’s missing in your fat loss efforts.
The good news is, increasing it is relatively easy if you’re cognizant of just moving more.
Increasing your movement is simple and takes virtually no toll on systemic recovery. Just be mindful of moving more during the day. Here are some ideas for increasing your energy expenditure:
- Stand up every hour on the hour for 5-10 minutes if you work at a desk. Standing requires twice a many calories as sitting.
- Stop parking close to the store or gym. Pick a parking spot at the far end of the lot to increase your walking distance.
- Find a new hobby that requires some movement.
- Get a dog and walk it twice a day for a minimum of 30 minutes each time. Or if you have one already, be a better dog owner and take it for longer walks.
- Clean your house or apartment, routinely and daily. Clean the kitchen after every meal, tidy-up common living areas, make your bed.
- Watch less TV. And when you do, walk around your house during commercials until your show is back on.
- Do meal prep. This kills a few birds with one stone. Weigh your food, cook it, package it all up. Now you’re on point with your calories and increasing NEAT.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Have more sex. Try to make it last for more than three to thirteen minutes (2).
You get the idea. Unless you already have a job that requires a lot of movement, you absolutely need to be moving more if your fat loss is stagnant. And you need to keep moving each day if you want to keep the fat off.
NEAT is one of those little secrets that isn’t intentionally kept from anyone. It’s just that most people don’t think about it. But it matters a lot when it comes to creating an energy deficit.
Once the internet gets ahold of any fitness idea you can pretty much set an egg timer to see how long it’ll take before it’s bastardized, taken to extremes, and proclaimed the panacea.
The fitness community is like the opposite of a Bob Ross painting. Bob starts with some delicate brush strokes, then half an hour later you’re looking at an epic composition full of happy little trees. Every detail is influenced by and combined with a dozen others until the work of art is complete.
But the fitness world will take a solid idea, consume it in mass with a box of crayons, wash it down with a bottle of caster oil, and then shoot it out like technicolored poo all over the canvas. And that’s kind of what happens when simple concepts get overemphasized and marketed as a cure-all.
IIFYM (if it fits your macros) was an approach merely meant to help people relax a bit in terms of food selection. If you wanted some mac n’ cheese instead of rice, you’d just account for the calorie and macro differences and fit it into your daily quota. Pretty cool, right?
But since common sense and moderation are boring, it didn’t end there. Social media gurus took this simple concept, made it as extreme as possible, then injudiciously spewed it all over the internet.
When IIFYM is bastardized it’s usually done by those who say all foods are “equal” based on only calories or macros with no further consideration of nutritional content. They’ll even go so far as to say: “Calories are ALL that matter in terms of improving body composition.”
Or they’ll tell you that 400 calories from doughnuts are the same as 400 calories from a grilled chicken salad. Yes, I’ve seen that. It’s a real thing.
But calories aren’t ingested in some type of isolated environment where there isn’t a cascade of other physiological events that happen afterwards. And different foods will create different effects that play a part in creating a degree of compliance with caloric intake and dietary control.
How does your diet plan make you feel and function? That’s important because how you feel and function will affect what foods you crave and eat next. But this reality hasn’t stopped the army of spaghetti-armed online gurus from latching onto the misguided idea that calories are ALL that matter.
The latest version of this is the idea that energy-in versus energy-out is the only consideration for fat loss, and those who push it say that all you need to do is keep lowering caloric intake until you’re diced and sliced.
To them, you don’t need cardio, nor do you need to be overly active. You just need to lower the calories that are coming in.
- Not losing enough weight? Lower calories.
- Still not losing enough weight? Lower calories more. And keep lowering them. Even more. No, still not enough. Lower your calories.
If this is the way you get people to lose fat, then well done, coach. You’re really a wealth of information and clearly the Stephen Hawking of the dietary coaching panel.
Continuing to lower the caloric floor is unsustainable and impractical. At some point you won’t be able to lower calories any further, you’ll be hungry as hell, and you’ll lose muscle.
Just expend a bunch more calories in training instead of eating less, right? Well, not so fast.
Exercise itself is a piss-poor tool to use for energy expenditure and increased fat oxidation. You lift weights to get stronger and build muscle, and you do some cardio for restorative effects, improved work capacity, and to get some supplemental fat burning.
In the big picture of losing fat and keeping it off, it’s a combination of dietary compliance and keeping your energy-out systems humming along with it.
The cliché, “you can’t out-train a bad diet” has been said so often that it doesn’t resonate like it used to, but for most people, it’s true. Yet the average person would rather exhaust himself on a step-mill than not eat the cheesecake.
And then he’ll complain when he gets nothing out of it but exhaustion and hunger. Which means dietary compliance will be even harder… and whoops, you just blew your diet.
It’s most definitely easier to eat 900 calories from cake or basically any overly processed food than it is to expend 900 calories worth of energy. And then you hear from people who say this: “But I burn 1,000 calories in an hour down at Orange Theory!”
Settle down. You really don’t. I don’t care how much your Fitbit says you burned or what your overly enthusiastic instructor said. A grand of calories burned in an hour is a Herculean effort that’s far beyond the scope of some basic interval training, and outside of some elite outliers, can’t be done.
A continual lowering of energy (calories) intake isn’t really a viable solution for those who want to shed fat and keep it off. The intelligent solution is to find a caloric floor that works well in conjunction with your energy expenditure to create a sustainable lifestyle.
If you’ve been stuck in terms of fat loss but feel as though your caloric intake is dialed in, examine your energy output. Especially your NEAT. That could be the missing ingredient for faster fat loss without having to take more food off your plate.
- Ostendorf DM et al. Physical Activity Energy Expenditure and Total Daily Energy Expenditure in Successful Weight Loss Maintainers. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2019 Mar;27(3):496-504. PubMed.
- Corty EW et al. Canadian and American sex therapists’ perceptions of normal and abnormal ejaculatory latencies: how long should intercourse last? J Sex Med. 2008 May;5(5):1251-1256. PubMed.