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Is NEAT the final piece of the perfect physique puzzle?

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Stephen Box is the founder of Team Box, a competition prep coach and physique consultant, and the Winner of Mr Great Britain and UKBFF Model division

As a physique competitor, details count. If you’re serious about competition, you’re likely to be tracking your macros, calories and workouts somewhat religiously, and adjusting them for the best possible results. It’s not easy, and it takes time. But there’s one factor you might be neglecting when it comes down to the details of prep, and neglecting it can ruin all your hard work. Fix it, and you’ll progress faster.

I’m talking, of course, about NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. People prepping for competitions tend to worry about metabolic damage, but when it comes to energy levels and fat loss, NEAT is more of a concern.

Here’s the problem: near a physique competition, at the end of prep, ‘spontaneous’ movement goes down – people fidget less, move around less, and in extreme cases you’ll even notice them using their facial muscles less. The body becomes an extremely efficient machine, focused on expending as little energy as possible. To some extent, this is unavoidable, but it becomes an issue if you’re doing substantially less ‘work’ in a week than you otherwise would without accounting for it: or, in fact, if you’re doing the reverse.

My advice is to make a conscious effort to maintain or account for one variable, which should be your step count. When I’m training people for competition, I’ll spend a couple of weeks using a Fitbit or other tracker to find out their average daily step count: ideally this will be in the 8,000-10,000 range, as it allows some fat loss and is good for general health. Once I’ve got an idea of an average, I’ll count 1,000 steps as 100 calories, and ask my competitors to account for that in their meal planning. If you have a day where you don’t go anywhere and your step count goes from 10k down to 4,000, for instance, if your daily calories stay the same that might put you back at maintenance – so you’ll need to cut down accordingly.

The flipside, of course, is that if you’re in a deficit and you have a day when you’re on your feet walking around constantly and you hit 14,000 steps, you should be eating more: if you don’t, you’re likely to be exhausted in the following days, to say nothing of dietary adherence going down. You wouldn’t suddenly cut an extra 400 below your existing deficit, and doing it via NEAT is asking for trouble. Realistically, you can make the calories up however you like, though I’d tend to still recommend a mixture of carbs and protein to replace glycogen and spike muscle-protein synthesis.

Life has to go on as you prep for competition. Walking your dog, or going for a stroll with your partner, should still be part of your day, as stress-relief and an enjoyable part of your routine. Make sure it’s accounted for in your planning, and you’ll also benefit from its effects on fat-loss – without suffering from burnouts or bingeing. It’s just one of a lot of details that matter.

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