The Key to Losing Weight Isn't Diet or How Much Time You Spend in the Gym, It's NEAT

While losing weight is more about nutrition than exercise (anyone ever tell you "you can't out-exercise a bad diet?"), activity definitely plays a role in burning fat and changing your body composition. But when most people think about activity for weight loss, they assume they need to spend hours in the gym or sign up for the most intense cycling class. In reality, there's other activity that can help you lose weight — and it's so easy to do.

Eric Bowling, a NASM-certified personal trainer at Ultimate Performance in Los Angeles who helps clients lose weight, emphasizes the need to incorporate nonexercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, into any weight-loss program. "NEAT is a huge part of the weight-loss puzzle that many people overlook," he told POPSUGAR. "Your hour in the gym will only contribute so much to your daily energy expenditure; it's what you do in the other 23 hours of your day that have a much bigger impact on your overall energy expenditure."

If you're trying to lose weight and still aren't seeing the scale budge, you could be missing NEAT. Eric breaks down what exactly NEAT is, how it can help you lose weight, and how it incorporate it into your daily life.

What Is Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis?

Nonexercise activity thermogenesis is a fancy term that sounds intense, but the principle behind it is simple: NEAT refers to any activity that you do throughout the day outside of formal exercise and sleeping. "NEAT includes any daily activity outside of the gym, from walking the dog or carrying the groceries home, to gardening or playing with your children," Eric explained.

For people who live mostly sedentary lives where you drive to work, sit at a desk for eight or so hours a day, drive home, then spend the evening on the couch watching TV, your energy expenditure is bound to be pretty low, which can lead to weight gain. "The difference in energy expenditure between someone who is active all day and someone who is sedentary can run into hundreds and hundreds of calories," Eric said. "Some estimates put the variation as high as 2,000 calories."

However, if you make the effort to walk to work or park your car further away, walk your dog when you get home, busy yourself with chores, or play with your kids, you are much more likely to have a higher energy expenditure, and therefore a higher calorie burn.

How Can NEAT Help You Lose Weight?

Losing weight tends to be overcomplicated with discussions about metabolism, food, fitness, and other lifestyle factors. And while they all play a role in whether or not you lose weight, in reality it's simple: an energy balance. To lose weight, you must expend more energy than you take in. Another way of looking at it is burning more calories than you take in.

"You can put yourself into a negative energy balance by either reducing the amount of calories you are consuming or increasing your activity levels, or a combination of both," Eric explained. "Boosting your daily activity levels with NEAT can play a huge role in helping you lose weight and maintain your weight loss."

Although how your body expends energy depends on a variety of factors, including height, weight, and sex, and the kind of activity you do (standing will burn more calories than sitting, and walking for three miles per hour will burn more calories than just standing). "The difference in energy expenditure between someone who is active all day and someone who is sedentary can run into hundreds and hundreds of calories," Eric said. "One of the many benefits of NEAT is that you will be less reliant on calorie restriction to lose weight."

How Much NEAT Should You Aim For in a Day?

One of the easiest ways to increase your NEAT throughout the day is getting in more steps. Track with a pedometer, FitBit, Apple Watch, or a free app on your smartphone. Eric said to aim for 10,000 to 12,000 steps a day for weight loss. If you're just starting out, aim for 6,000 steps a day and work your way up to more.

Eric said if you work in an active occupation such as personal training, construction, or hospitality, you are probably getting enough NEAT during your workday. But for everyone else, getting in extra steps could be a matter of parking your car further away from your destination or getting off a couple stops before your public transit stop. You can also start your day with a quick bodyweight circuit or go for a walk after dinner. Other activities, such as raking leaves, vacuuming, playing tag with your kids, or going bowling, all count.

Other Benefits of NEAT

Sure, upping your NEAT can help you lose weight, but there are other health benefits. If you're sore from weightlifting or a standard gym session, walking will help increase blood flow to sore muscles and relieve discomfort, Eric explained. Plus, getting out and walking can help relieve stress and clear your head, especially during particularly hectic days. Save your favorite podcast or phone calls to a friend for your longer walks to make them more enjoyable.

Getting in extra steps is the easiest way to up your NEAT, but think about how to be active in other areas of your life: use a standing desk, meet friends for a hike, play table tennis, or try some DIY projects. Every little bit counts!