We’ve all had that moment when we look at ourselves shirtless in the mirror and think “I need to lose some weight”.
Your first instinct might be to go grab a pair of shorts and hit up your favorite running trail. But is all that extra time spent sweating and trying not to have a heart attack really necessary to cut a couple pants sizes?
While it’s hardly groundbreaking journalism to say that exercise and cardio will help you lose weight, it may not be as important as you think.
Your Body is a Bathtub
I know that is a weird header, but bear with me. Let’s say you weigh 200 lbs. Now, instead of a 200 lbs human being, picture 200 lbs or water inside a bathtub.
You want to go from weighing 200 lbs to weighing, let’s say, 180 lbs. In keeping with this analogy, we want the bathtub to go from 200 lbs of water to 180 lbs of water.
The first question we should ask ourselves is “how did the water get in the bathtub in the first place?” The answer is, someone turned on the faucet. In this analogy, the faucet is any time we eat food. So, bad news, any time you are eating food you are getting fatter.
But, if this was the only thing ever happening, we would just be gaining weight forever and ever from the time we were born to the time we died. We’d expand like Violet Beauregarde, turning into a giant blueberry in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. But this doesn’t happen because lucky for us, the bathtub has a drain to get rid of water.
If the faucet is food (or the energy we put into our body), then the drain is the energy that comes out of our body. So, if we think about it logically, if that amount of water coming into the bathtub exceeds the amount of water leaving the bathtub, we’ll gain weight. If there is less water coming in than coming out, we’ll lose weight.
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Dissecting the Drain
Ok, so we understand that the faucet is food, but what about the drain? As was already mentioned, the drain is any time we are expending energy. And if we add up all of the energy we expend in a day we get what is called out total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is comprised of four parts.
Basal Metabolic Rate
The first part of your TDEE is your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the number of calories you need for basic survival. It is about 70% of your TDEE, meaning if you burn 2,000 calories a day, 1,400 of them are from your BMR.
If you were to sit on the sofa all day watching Netflix, you would still be burning calories. You still need to spend energy on things like breathing and keeping your organs working. Although this is how you burn most of your calories, it cannot be manipulated on a daily basis.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
The next largest part of your TDEE is your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Your NEAT is about 15% of your TDEE, although there is a lot of variability from individual to individual. NEAT is all the calories we burn through movement, not including exercise.
So activities like grocery shopping, walking to work, fidgeting, etc, all contribute to your NEAT. If you have a more physical job, like a construction worker, your NEAT will be higher than someone who works in an office.
Thermogenic Effect of Food
The third largest part of your TDEE is your thermogenic effect of food (TEF), which is about 10% of your TDEE. TEF is the energy that it takes to digest the food that you eat. You know the expression “you need to spend money to make money”? Same idea, but for food. In order to receive the energy contained in food, you need to spend a little energy to get to it.
Exercise Energy Thermogenesis
And finally, the smallest part of your TDEE, yet the one people seem to focus on the most, is your exercise energy thermogenesis, or EAT. This is the number of calories you burn through exercise and it is about 5% of your TDEE. While it’s not a negligible part of your TDEE, it should definitely not be your focus if you are trying to maintain a calorie deficit.
Using EAT to Lose Weight
Part of your EAT can be cardio. Most people may be tempted to just start running to lose those extra pounds, and it may work for a minute.
Let’s say that you are eating 2,000 calories a day, and you are burning 2,000 calories a day without exercising. The rate at which water is coming into the bathtub is the same as the rate of water draining from the bathtub, so you are maintaining your weight.
Now you start to do a 20-minute run three times a week. You keep your diet the same so now you are eating 2,000 calories a day, but burning slightly more than that because you are running. The rate of water draining out of the tub is now higher than the water coming in, so you will lose weight.
While EAT in and of itself isn’t great at burning calories, it can lead to a higher BMR, which as we’ve mentioned is about 70% of your TDEE. This is especially true if you do resistance training and build muscle. Generally speaking, the more muscle you have, the higher your BMR will be, and the easier it will be for you to lose weight.
Other Strategies to Lose Weight
The simplest strategy to lose weight and decrease the amount of water in your tub is to decrease the amount of water coming into the the tub, i.e. eat less.
It doesn’t matter how much weight you lift, how many miles you run, if you are eating more calories than you are burning, you will gain weight. You need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight.
You can also work on increasing your NEAT, which is the second biggest part of your TDEE. Instead of taking the elevator, take the stairs. Go for a walk at lunch, and just passively move around more.