There are people who appear to remain slim almost magically, no matter what they eat and whether they formally exercise or not. Janaki Bahri, the 29-year-old mother of a boy who just celebrated his first birthday, is one of those people. She has always been slim and petite and returned to her pre-pregnancy size within six months of the baby’s birth.
Bahri is an active person but is not someone who works out regularly. She says that she has not worked out in over a year and a half and didn’t have to exercise to lose her pregnancy weight. If you ask her how she remains slim, her instinctive reply is: “It’s genetic; my father is exactly the same way.”
Meanwhile, urban India is putting on more weight now than ever before because we are putting more energy into our bodies than we are using up, consistently. Lancet published a paper in November 2010 that looked at the growing health concern of obesity in developing nations like India, Brazil and China. The study was led by Daniel Chisholm and his colleagues at the health division of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and found that dietary habits and a sedentary way of life were causing an energy surplus in our bodies and fuelling the obesity epidemic.
Food, our energy-giving source, is burned by our bodies in three ways, via our basal metabolic rate (BMR), the thermic effect of food, and physical activity. BMR is the rate at which we consume energy at rest and approximately 60% of all the energy expended by our bodies is because of our BMR. The more lean body mass we have, or the more muscle mass we have, the more our BMR, which is why trainers at gyms keep asking people to lift weights. Eleven per cent of our energy expenditure is on digesting the food we eat, what scientists call the thermic effect of food. Our physical activity burns the remaining 29% of the energy*. This physical activity is through formal exercise like jogging and swimming and through everyday activities like typing on the computer, shopping, cooking, standing in a line, etc.
Published in the journal Science in January 2005, the study Interindividual Variation in Posture Allocation: Possible Role in Human Obesity by Dr Levine and others found that lean people moved a lot more in small ways every day than obese people. This was the case even when the thin people were artificially made to put on weight by being given 1,000 more calories a day and the obese people were artificially made to eat 1,000 calories less a day. The lean people just had a higher NEAT no matter what.
NEAT at work
Because NEAT is such an important source of calorie burn, how much energy we spend while we work depends on where we work. For example, if you have a desk-bound job where you hardly leave your desk all day, you burn about 300 calories a day. A farmer, on the other hand, burns 2,300 calories per day. That’s a 2,000-calorie difference, and maybe one of the reasons why obesity isn’t an issue in rural India yet. In the medical research fraternity, this is old news. This data is from research done by A.E. Black and colleagues at the Dunn Clinical Nutrition Centre, Cambridge, UK, and it was published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition way back in 1996. But the difference in the numbers of calories used in a desk-bound job, which most of us have, versus a farmer’s is enough to make us all sit up and take notice.
While nobody is suggesting that you take up farming, becoming more active while having a desk-bound job is certainly possible (see Count How Much You Burn). The table shows you that you can actually burn as many calories at work as you would during an average hour in the gym if you put NEAT into practice.
Jyotsna Changrani, co-founder and director of Meta Wellness, Mumbai, and faculty at the New York University School of Medicine, US, says that she and her colleagues at NYU did put NEAT into practice in their office to see if it would make a difference. They found that on an average they lost 2-3kg each over a span of six months while staying on a healthy diet. The point is, you can lose weight and stay fit by burning more calories while living your life. You don’t always need a gym membership to lose weight.
Just as your level of activity matters in the workplace, NEAT levels differ dramatically depending upon what you do during your leisure time as well. If you are coming home from work at 5pm and sitting in front of the TV till 11pm, you’ll burn about 50 kcal. While, say, for argument’s sake, you spend the evening repainting your apartment, you will burn about 100-150 kcal per hour. So that’s 600 kcal spent in redecorating your home versus 50 kcal spent sitting in front of the TV. This comparison is one that Dr Levine and his colleagues make in an article published in September in the Surgery for Obesity And Related Diseases. Again, perhaps repainting your apartment isn’t something that we would do for recreation in India, but the point is a valid one.
So to boost your NEAT, apart from moving around more in your office, you can come home and involve yourself in more activities. You can cook dinner for the household, play with your children and take an evening walk with your spouse. If you do this regularly while eating a balanced, low-fat diet, you will be able to knock off those extra kilos you’ve put on over the years without a single day spent in a gym.
We asked Bahri if she moved around a lot while she was going about her daily life and she said: “Yes, I’m pacing the floor as I talk to you over the phone. Isn’t that what everyone does?”
Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.
*The percentage break-up is from a published keynote address of James Levine’s titled “Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis: A Way Forward to Treat the Worldwide Obesity Epidemic”, published in 2012 in ‘Surgery for Obesity And Related Diseases’.