What comes to your mind when you hear the word “cardio”? Walking on an inclined treadmill for 45 minutes? Perhaps you are picturing yourself putting on a pair of headphones and going for a 3 mile jog around the block. We all understand adding in a cardiovascular exercise program combined with a well-structured diet can give us an extra boost in our fat loss journey, but just the thoughts of doing dreadful cardio sessions alone can be exhausting especially after a long day of school and work. Do we really have to drag ourselves to treadmill each day running out of breath and leaving a bucket of sweats?
In this article, let us examine one of the most powerful cardio that we can do every day. We will begin by looking at how this approach to cardio may be superior to doing traditional exercise in terms of burning calories.
Exercise Does NOT Burn As Many Calories As You Think It Does
Most people are not efficient at estimating the amount of calories burned during exercise. Individuals often overestimate their energy expenditure during an exercise session by 3-4 folds or more. In one study, subjects on average thought they had burned about 800-900 kcal when in fact they burned 200-300 kcal during a half-hour walk at a brisk pace. Some individuals even estimated that they have burned 3,000 – 4,000 kcal.
Thinking we burn significantly more calories during exercise than we actually do, we often “reward” ourselves with a huge post-workout meal that can easily offset, and often times exceed, the actual calories burned during our cardio session. If you have ever wondered why you are not losing weight despite of endless cardio sessions that you are doing, this issue of overestimation of energy expenditure along with overcompensation as a reward may be the primary reason.
In the search of “the most powerful cardio,” we then have to consider two factors: (1) we want a form of cardio that actually burns sufficient amount of calories, and (2) we want the cardio to be not as physically and mentally taxing so that we won’t fall into the habit of convincing ourselves we have earned a huge post-workout meal. What could that be?
Introducing Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
The name of the most powerful cardio is “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis” (NEAT). NEAT accounts for the energy expenditure of every physical activity other than voluntary, sporting-like exercise. It includes all the daily mundane activities such as making coffee, standing, talking, shaking our legs while sitting, and more.
Although these daily tasks seem insignificant, NEAT is the predominant component of total calories burned through activities (that is, NEAT + calories burned through exercise) even in avid exercisers. What is even more surprising is that NEAT can account for greater than 50% of Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) in highly-active individuals while 15% TDEE in very sedentary individuals . To put in another perspective, even small movements such as standing and fidgeting can easily add up to 1,000 kcal and NEAT varies by up to 2,000 kcal per day among individuals. This number is amazingly significant when we consider the fact that in order to burn 2,000 kcal through cardio, we would have to run for 2 hours non-stop.
The important role of NEAT in weight loss if often supported by various studies. In one study, 16 subjects were overfed by 1,000 kcal per day for 8 straight weeks. While significant amount of fat gain across all subjects was expected, the results were surprising: after 8 weeks of overfeeding by 56,000 total calories, fat gain varied from 0.8 lbs to 9.3 lbs among individuals, showing a 10-fold variance despite the same 1000 kcal/day increase in food intake. Why is that so, you may ask? The study found that the explanation behind the greatly varied weight gain was primarily due to the range of change in NEAT in response to the overfeeding, ranging from -98 kcal/day (these individuals actually moved less when they were overfed) to +692 kcal/day. In another study, it was observed that lean individuals tend to be standing and ambulatory for 2.5 hours longer per day than obese individuals.
By this point, I hope you can see how NEAT proves to be the principal mediator of fat loss and fat gain and why consciously moving around throughout the day can be more effective than spending 30 minutes to an hour at the gym doing cardio.
Three Practical Strategies to Promote Greater NEAT
Modify seated behaviors so that the tasks can be performed while standing.
In the case of 145 lb individual, standing can burn 2.9 kcal per minute while sitting can burn 1.7 kcal. This may not seem like much, but when looking at 250 work days within a year, this small difference translates to 18,000 kcal in total. That is, just by standing at work instead of sitting you can lose a little over 5 lbs.
Standing is not an option? Then, simply fidget more while sitting.
This may sound funny, but simply fidgeting while sitting or standing can help you burn a lot more calories than when sitting or standing motionlessly. Here are some statistics that can help you see the impact of fidgeting on burning calories:
- When sitting motionless, 3.7% more calories are burned than lying on the back in the control condition.
- When sitting PLUS fidgeting, 54% more calories are burned than the control.
- When standing motionless, 13% more calories are burned than the control.
- When standing PLUS fidgeting, 94% more calories are burned than the control.
Putting this in more practical terms, simply by sitting while fidgeting all day, you can burn 600 more calories than if you were to sit motionlessly all day. So the next time you are working in front of computer at work or school, try shaking your legs or playing with your hands!
Invest in a pedometer.
Walking is one of the greatest form of exercise we can do. Not only is it the most natural movement to human in terms of biomechanics with very low risk of injuries, but also it is much less taxing to our mind and body so it can be repeatedly done every single day. Not to mention that walking at only 1 mph (the speed at which we can hardly call it even a slow walk) can double your energy expenditure compared to sitting. Involving in and accumulating walking activity throughout the day for weeks and months can go a long way into helping you maintain your NEAT levels high, promoting an effective and sustainable fat loss strategy. Investing in a pedometer can give you feedback you need to know and help ensure that you move around sufficiently and consistently.