Months ago, you decided on a change – you established effective goals and were enjoying promising results, when suddenly, just like that, you hit a plateau where all your efforts are no longer producing results. The daily tactics and strategies you devised to achieve your goals now appear stagnant and stale, and you’re becoming frustrated, demotivated and perhaps even unglued.
Many of us have experienced this or something similar, and it can be attributed to a myriad of reasons ranging from genetic predisposition and potential (i.e., as good as you are going to get), or biological factors, (e.g., set point theory), to any number of consciously or subconsciously-controlled events such as behaviors and behavioral triggers, internally- or externally-imposed barriers, or perhaps even limitations within the actual program itself.
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The Causes of Most Plateaus
Most associate plateaus or diminished results to factors within their exercise or dietary program and seek ways to jumpstart the physiological change process once again. This typically involves some dramatic change or alteration to their program to induce a new shock upon the system.
Many exercise options exist that promise accelerated transformations from ‘fat-to-fit’ for those starting out or needing a new spark. Turn on the television or flip open various consumer magazines and you’ll most likely find a slew of metabolic resistance programs (MRT) or high-intensity intermittent training (HIIT) programs promising to boost your metabolism.
More recently, nutritional programs have forayed into this arena making their own claims with diet confusion. Although intermittent fasting, a dietary eating schedule, appears to hold some promise in reigniting our metabolism, other non-traditional methods are also growing in popularity. These include carbohydrate backloading, dish spacing and dish substitution, and nutrient periodization (e.g., alternating quantities of the three macronutrients daily), but they all remain essentially untested and scientifically unproven.
The unfortunate reality however, is that we often limit our explanation of plateaus and exploration of solutions to exercise and our major meals throughout our day, and largely ignore the possibility that other simpler solutions may exist.
Perhaps it is time to also consider the impact of environmental and behavioral plateaus that can be triggered by mindless snacking, overall lifestyle outside of exercise (i.e., non-exercise activity thermogenesis – NEAT), or even behavioral factors like waning enthusiasm or motivation, lack of willpower, lack of ability, behavioral complacency, or even allosteric load (i.e., taking on too many things in life simultaneously that could be draining your energy reserves and ability to recover).
Given the breadth and complexity of this problem, we cannot conceivably address them all in one article. Instead, this article will focus upon the concept of NEAT, which has emerged through science as a simple solution to weight loss or to giving your weight loss efforts a much-needed boost (1, 2).
NEAT refers to the energy expended for everything we do that does not include sleeping, eating, physical activity or exercise, and ranges from simple standing, to fidgeting and moving about. Over the past few years, this has become the focal point of weight loss given the limitations associated with exercise in general. Research demonstrates that successful weight loss needs to target 2,000 calories per week, a number that far exceeds what most individuals care to do or are capable of doing (3). Table 1-1 presents the calories expended from various exercise and activity programs for the average American adult male and female who now weigh 166.2 pounds and 195.5 pounds respectively (4, 5). The table also illustrates how much more time is needed each week in order to attain a total caloric expenditure of 2,000 kcal.
Information like this has lead researchers to find alternative solutions. One of the first landmark studies to demonstrate the importance of standing and moving about was published by Katzmarzyk and colleagues in 2009 (1). Their study examined mortality data over a 12-year period with over 17,000 subjects ranging from inactive to physically active individuals and discovered a strong and consistent correlation between the amounts of time spent sitting and mortality risk. In other words, physical activity appears to be insufficient in reversing the ill-effects of being seated and sedentary, regardless of the level of physical activity. They discovered that the longer the time one spent seated and sedentary, the greater the reductions in HDL-cholesterol and in lipoprotein lipase (LPL) at muscle cells, both of which are associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk. The enzyme LPL in physically active individuals promotes greater uptake of fatty acids into muscle cells whereas in non-active individuals, this reduced enzyme activity results in greater uptake in fat cells in the visceral region. In 2008, Levine and Yeager examined Body Mass Index (BMI) scores between exercisers and non-exercisers and discovered that the lean, non-exercisers moved about 150 more minutes each day on average (2). This averaged to approximately 352 kcal more per day or 36.7 pounds a year.
The takeaway here is relatively simple. Rather than trying to squeeze another few precious hours out of our already hectic weekly schedule to exercise and burn more calories, take a quick inventory of your day(s) to examine times where you are performing seated activities and challenge yourself to do them standing. The typical workday presents itself as the low-hanging fruit considering how many hours it involves each week and how much of this time is spent in a seated position. In fact, the evolution of the standing workstation was derived from these initial studies.
As illustrated in Table 1-2, if the average male or female could accumulate just 2 hours of standing each workday (5 days per week, 50-weeks per year) while performing their light office duties, it would translate to 13.7 pounds and 11.1 pounds a year for men and women respectively without even breaking a sweat or having to find more time to exercise. This caloric total is the equivalent of finding time to complete an additional 130 and 160 more workouts using an average expenditure rate of 300 calories per session.
In closing, if you looking for a simple solution to get your weight loss efforts back on track or seeking alternative ways give yourself an additional caloric expenditure boost, then look no further than NEAT. Identify a few NEAT challenges to try throughout your workday that you can sustain and enjoy, and you’ll be amazed by the results you can so easily attain. So, how NEAT are you?
- Katzmarzyk PT, Church TS, Craig CL, and Bouchard C (2009). Sitting time and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, 41(5): 998-1005.
- Levine JA, and Yeager S (2009). Move a little, lose a lot. New York, NY. Three Rivers Press.
- American College of Sports Medicine (2014). ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (9th edition). Baltimore, MD. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012). Anthropometric Reference Data for Children and Adults: United States, 2007 – 2010. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11(252):1-48.
- Ainsworth BE, Haskell WL, Herrmann SD, Meckes N, Bassett Jr DR, Tudor-Locke C, Greer JL, Vezina J, Whitt-Glover MC, and Leon AS (2011) Compendium of Physical Activities: a second update of codes and MET values. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 43(8):1575-81.