What is Your Metabolic Profile?
I’m currently taking a continuing education course on fat metabolism by Len Kravitz, PhD., a famous researcher in the field of exercise science. One of the course chapters details a concept called “metabolic profiling” and the concept of non-exercise activity (or ‘NEAT’) throughout the day. While I have known about NEAT’s importance, this idea of metabolic profiling was new to me, and I thought I’d share a little more about it with you today.
What is a metabolic profile (and why does it matter)?
You already know exercise is vital for your health, but are you prioritizing movement throughout the rest of your day? The average adult spends 70% of their day seated, wreaking havoc on our health. Researchers have found a strong association between too much sitting and all-cause mortality risk, even in those who meet the current minimum daily guidelines for exercise.
One of the things you’ll hear me talk about a lot is the small, simple habits we can create to support our health. One of those small (but important!) habits is non-exercise activity time (or NEAT for short). If you are trying to stay healthy and maintain a healthy weight, adding more NEAT to your day may be helpful.
An individual’s metabolic profile helps determine how much activity they do daily (not including sleep time). This profiling offers a way to chart your daily schedule to determine how much time you spend sitting vs. in motion (standing, walking, etc.).
Why is that important? For two adults of similar size, daily energy expenditure (accounting for similarities in size-based, basal resting metabolic rate) from this type of NEAT movement can vary by as much as 2,000 calories per day. That enormous difference can significantly aid in weight loss without adding additional ‘exercise’ time.
One NEAT study followed 20 self-proclaimed “couch potatoes” (both men and women) who did no planned physical activity (aka non-exercisers). Of these 20 volunteers, ten had a BMI of 23 ± 2 (classifying them as lean), and ten had BMI measurements of 33 ± 2 (or mildly obese). Researchers wanted to search for movement clues explaining how these two groups differed. It turned out that the overweight subjects spent 164 more minutes seated per day than the lean volunteers. The leaner subjects also spent 152 extra minutes upright, creating more overall movement throughout their day. This extra movement led to an additional calorie burn of approximately 350 calories daily (or 36.5 pounds!) in a year.
How to determine your metabolic profile
The simplest way to determine your metabolic profile is to log a breakdown of your average work day in 30-minute increments. For example:
7:00am Wake Up, Get Ready for the day (30 minutes of standing)
7:30am Breakfast, Read News (30 minutes sitting)
8:00 – 8:30am Drive to Work (45-60 minutes sitting)
9:00am Walk to Desk at Office (5 minutes walking)
9:05am – 12:00pm Seated at Desk, Working (185 minutes sitting)
12:05 – 12:10pm Walk to Lunch Room (5 minutes walking)
12:10pm – 12:50pm Eating lunch (40 minutes sitting)
…. detailed on until you are in bed in the evening
Determine your total waking hours (subtract your hours slept/in bed from 24) and then calculate your total waking minutes (divided by 60). Then, add up all the minutes spent sitting in your day and subtract that number from your total wake time. You can then convert that number into a percent to determine the exact percentage of your seated time.
For example, as Kravitz says, if you spend 500 minutes of your 900 minutes of total wake time sitting, then we can determine that 55% of your day is spent inactive or seated.
I understand that this is a lot of work (and math!) to figure this out, and I don’t even think it’s necessary if you can start observing your daily behavior as you ‘move’ through your typical day. So if you don’t want to calculate your exact percentage of sitting time, if you can recognize that you might need to add a little more NEAT to your daily routine, that’s a great place to start!
Begin looking for ways to add more movement (not necessarily more exercise) to your day. Walk and talk in a safe space during phone calls (side bonus – physical activity helps your brain think better!). Stand at your desk whenever you take a sip of water, coffee, or tea. Take the longer walking route to the bathroom, store, or mail room. Recharge your brain and stretch your body with a short flexibility break. Think small, simple ways you can start adding more (sweat-free) movement to your day.
Does this matter as much if I exercise regularly?
Actually, yes. Most of us overestimate how many calories we burn during exercise (another reason I don’t like to give out calorie burn numbers for our workouts) and underestimate how many calories we eat. We also tend to underestimate the value of our movement for the rest of our waking hours (the average expenditure during exercise activity is only about 100 calories a day), which may be even more vital to our health and well-being overall. Regular exercise isn’t enough to keep our body healthy if you sit too much throughout your waking hours.
Now, before you throw your hands up in the air and say, “then why am I exercising at all?” don’t forget that regular training improves our body composition, balance, strength, and stamina (and more). It also improves our resilience, longevity, and vitality as we age. And more importantly, exercise improves our body’s ability to burn fat. Resistance training, in particular, helps our muscle cells use fat as fuel during recovery. Regular weekly strength training sessions (2-3 days of multi-set workouts) can raise our resting metabolic rate (RMR) by an additional 100 calories per day (this is on top of the burn during the actual session and in the immediate post-workout window too). More on that to come!
In our ever-increasing sedentary society, where everything is designed to be automated or more comfortable (thank you, Roomba!), we tend to discount the importance of being physically active beyond our determined ‘exercise’ time. And, if we overdo it when we train (think exhaustingly high-intensity work), we may want to rest more the rest of the day due to our lower energy level. In this case, a more moderate workout may be even more beneficial if it allows you more than enough energy to keep moving throughout the remaining hours of your day.
One major caveat here— while many of these studies touch on the extra calorie burn, this information is not meant to make you obsess over burning more calories all day, but it’s more about the value of moving your body to improve your health.
One study showed that when rats were not allowed to stand, they experienced a dramatic decrease in the enzyme lipoprotein lipase, which helps move fat from the blood to be used as fuel. Researchers believe the same is true in humans, as sedentary behavior has been linked to a reduced amount of good (HDL) cholesterol.
And it’s also popular to talk about ‘getting in your steps’, which is an excellent way to help add more activity time throughout your day, but only if it doesn’t become an obsession. The 10,000-steps-a-day general recommendation is just that – a suggested amount to help you keep moving that can be spread out throughout the day, but it doesn’t need to be the exact goal to be reached to stay healthy. You can stand, step, or do any other type of movement to help you achieve this NEAT increase.
For your health and longevity, get moving as much as you can. Rediscover or reignite a love for a hobby (like gardening or fixing things) that helps you care for your body and soul at the same time. Get on your feet — stand up, make things a little less convenient, fidget, play, move and enjoy life away from screens. Get back to nature and our natural, more active state as often as possible.
Here’s to your health!
PS. – Need some help with ideas for adding more movement to your day? Join me for any of the below sessions for some activity boosters:
8-Minute Standing, Full Body Stretch
Our 10-Minute Quick Walk Mix on DVD and digital also offers seven different 10-minute exercise ‘snacks’ you can add to your day.
Or, try any of our new “Stretch + Relax” segments to move, stretch and de-stress (there’s even one you can do with your chair) on DVD or digital.
You can find all of these options (and tons more!) with our new “All Access Pass” available here.
Really interesting and informative article, Jessica, thank you! And important, too. I have enjoyed your other articles as well. Great content and very readable! 👍👍
Thanks so much for reading Susanna! 🙂