Make Small Changes for Big Results

Get more out of your life and your workouts

Woman doing bench press
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If you're trying to lose weight, your first instinct is to look for ways to burn the most calories. Cardio, strength training and, of course, a healthy low-cal diet are the obvious ways to burn calories and lose weight, but what you may not know is that your body has secret ways of ​burning calories as well. Below you'll find out about these secret weight loss weapons and how to maximize your workouts and your life for ​weight loss and health.

1. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)

While non-exercise activity thermogenesis sounds like some bizarre metabolic process in the body, it's meaning is actually very simple: Spontaneous activity. Every time you stand up and move, you're involved in spontaneous activity and you know what else? You're also burning calories.

People are so focused on structured exercise and target heart rate zones they forget that general activity can be a huge contributor to weight loss.

Consider one study in which 20 self-proclaimed couch potatoes were studied to determine how different activity levels contributed to different levels of weight. In the study, one group of volunteers  had an average BMI of 23 (lean), while the other 10 men and women had an average BMI of 33 (mildly obese). What researchers found was very interesting:

  • The obese group sat for 164 minutes longer each day than the lean group.
  • The lean people were upright for 153 minutes longer than the obese people.
  • The lean group burned an average of 350 extra calories each day (36 lbs a year) by walking and standing more throughout the day.

Though neither group did any structured exercise, the lean group burned extra calories just by moving around more - no sweating required.

Maximize It

To maximize the calories you burn with NEAT, you simply need to move around more:

  • Stand up every chance you get.
  • Walk everywhere. Pace when you're on the phone, visit your co-workers instead of emailing them or use a pedometer
  • When at the mall, make three laps before you can buy anything.
  • When you park the car, make a complete circuit around the parking lot before entering the building.
  • When carrying groceries, bring the bags in one bag at a time.
  • If you're stuck sitting for long periods of time, change position, a shift in your seat or even do some isometric exercises - squeeze your hands together, contract your abs or squeeze your glutes.
  • Sit on an exercise ball and roll around while you watch TV or work on the computer.

Find more ways to Incorporate Exercise into your Life or be creative an come up with your own list. Even just a little more activity each day can make a difference.


James A. Levine, Lorraine M. Lanningham-Foster, Shelly K. McCrady, Alisa C. Krizan, Leslie R. Olson, Paul H. Kane, Michael D. Jensen, Matthew M. Clark. "Interindividual Variation in Posture Allocation: Possible Role in Human Obesity". Science 28 January 2005: Vol. 307. no. 5709, pp. 584 - 586. 20 Mar. 2007.

2. Add More Muscle

We all know muscle is more metabolically active than fat.  In my FAQ, How many calories does muscle really burn? I found it was around 5-10 calories per pound per day while other experts, like Dr. Len Kravitz, estimate it's around 12-15 calories per pound per day. Whether it's 10 calories or 15 calories, adding muscle can make a difference.

Most people will gain about 2-5 lbs of muscle from strength training and each pound will burn about 15 calories per day.

  That's 30-75 extra calories burned each day, almost 8 lbs a year.

Maximize It

  • Train your muscles at least twice a week.If you're focusing on fitness and weight loss, try to get 2-3 sessions for each muscle group and make sure you take a day or two of rest between workouts to allow your muscles to recover. Learn more at Weight Training 101
  • Challenge your muscles. Most people don't lift enough weight to overload their muscles, which is necessary for building lean muscle tissue. Choose a weight that you can ONLY lift for the desired number of reps.
  • Use Compound Movements. The most effective strength moves involve multiple muscles and multiple joints. These compound movements (e.g., squats, lunges, pushups, etc.) allow you to lift more weight and burn more calories because you're using the large muscles of the body.
  • Change your program. The body will always adapt to what you're doing but you can avoid that and continue progressing by changing different elements of your workouts. You can do this by changing your method of training or by changing your exercises, reps, sets and/or type of resistance.

    Whatever program or schedule you choose, work hard and really challenge your muscles to get the most out of your workouts. You can find a variety of workout ideas at my Workout Center.

    3. The After-Burn

    Another secret way the body burns calories is with Exercise Post-Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), or what most of us refer to as after-burn. When we exercise, we throw the body into a form of chaos. Once the workout is over, our bodies expend calories to get the body back to its pre-exercise state.

    Just how many calories we burn after exercise is tough to answer but in the article, Exercise After-Burn: Research Update, authors Dr. Len Kravitz and Chantal A.

    Vella reviewed a number of studies related to after-burn and found that a general range is about 30-120 calories for 30-60 minutes of cardio (including cycling and treadmill) at 70% of VO2 max (about 80% of your maximum heart rate).

    And, it isn't just cardio that produces an after-burn. High-intensity resistance training and circuit resistance training (discussed below) also produce an after-burn as well. Results can differ based on gender and the type of exercise but, in general, the tougher (and longer) the workout, the greater the afterburn.

    Maximize It

    Interval Training

    Interval training is a great way to boost endurance, burn more calories and work harder without having the spend an entire workout at a high intensity. The idea is to work harder than you normally do for a short period of time to overload your body. Then you fully recover with a rest interval so that you're ready to do it all again.

    You can find specific details about interval training in my article, Interval Training, and the following workouts offer examples of interval workouts you can try on your own:

      High-Intensity Exercise

      Another way to boost your calorie burn is to try higher intensity workouts, or continuous training at about 80% of your maximum heart rate, which is right in your aerobic zone. In other words, you want to be out of your comfort zone, but not so far out that you can't catch your breath. This is about a Level 6-7 on a Perceived Exertion Scale. You might try adding one higher intensity workout a week and start with 10-20 minutes at this level if you're a beginner, gradually working your way up to 30-60 minutes.

      Circuit Training and Heavy Resistance Training

      Other activities that offer more of an after-burn are circuit resistance training and heavy resistance training. Lifting weights and building muscle will help you burn calories, but focusing on high-intensity training can increase your after-burn, though you should be an experienced exerciser before adding too much intensity. For beginners, start with Beginner Strength Workouts for several weeks before increasing intensity.

      The general guidelines for heavy resistance training include:

      • 8-10 exercises (e.g. bench press, lat pulldown, overhead press, barbell bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, squats, leg extensions and leg curls)
      • 2-4 sets of 3-8 reps
      • Use enough weight that you can ONLY complete the desired number of reps
      • 2-3 minutes of rest between sets

      The guidelines for circuit resistance training are:

      • 6-10 exercises (e.g., leg press, bench press, leg curl, lat pulldown, bicep curl, shoulder press, triceps pushdown, upright row, leg extension, and seated row)
      • 2-3 circuits, performing each exercise one after the other
      • 10-12 reps using a medium-heavy weight for each exercise

      Split Your Workouts

      Doing cardio and strength during the same workout won't necessarily double your after-burn but splitting your workouts can. If your schedule allows for it (and you want to workout more than once a day), you can split your routine so that you're doing cardio in the morning and strength later that day (or vice versa).  

      Safety Concerns

      It's important to be safe when increasing intensity to avoid overtraining and injury. Use these tips for safe and effective workouts:

      • Add intensity gradually. If you're a beginner or aren't used to high-intensity cardio workouts, gradually increase your pace or resistance/incline over time so you don't overdo it.
      • Limit high-intensity workouts. Experts recommend you do no more than 1-2 interval or high-intensity cardio workouts a week to avoid overtraining.
      • Add more warm up time. Because high-intensity workouts are hard on the body, it helps to give yourself plenty of time to warm up and get your body ready for hard work. Plan on spending a good 10 minutes gradually getting your heart rate up and your muscles warm.
      • Be sure to cool down. Giving your body time to slow down and recover from high-intensity workouts is important for staying safe and ending your workout on a good note.


      Murphy, Emmett and Schwarzkopf, Robert. "Effects of Standard Set and Circuit Weight Training on Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption." The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 88–91. 18 Mar. 2007.

      Vella, Chantal A., Kravitz, Len. "Exercise After-Burn: Research Update." IDEA Fitness Journal, 1(5), 42-47. 15 Mar. 2007.

      4. Weight-Bearing Cardio Workouts

      Another way to burn more calories is to participate in activities that are weight-bearing and involve more muscle fibers. Typical Weight-bearing activities include:

      • Walking
      • Running
      • Stairclimbing
      • Tennis
      • Soccer
      • Step-aerobics
      • Kickboxing
      • Dancing
      • Hiking

      When you engage in weight-bearing exercises, gravity works against you which requires your body to work harder and, thus, expend more energy.

      Similarly, activities that involve the entire body (like cross-country skiing) will usually burn more calories than activities that use fewer muscle groups (like cycling or doing a bicep curl). For more, check out 5 Ways to Add Intensity.

      Does this mean that non-weight-bearing exercises like swimming or cycling are useless? Not at all. While you'll typically expend fewer calories during those types of activities, there are some benefits - not as much repetitive stress on the joints and longer workouts because your body can better tolerate that kind of training.

      For workout ideas, check out this list of Cardio Workouts for all levels of exercisers.


      La Forge, Ralph. "Exercise Determinants of Weight Loss." ACE Certified News: August/September 2006. 18 Mar. 2007.

      Don't Overcompensate

      This last secret weapon isn't necessarily a function of the body so much as a function of what you do after your workout. It's fairly common to overcompensate for exercise without even being aware of it, which can compromise your attempts to lose weight if you're not paying attention. The most common ways we overcompensate include:

      • Eating more calories. When you start exercising, you may eat more calories to offset that extra energy expenditure. Some people do it because they're hungry and others because they feel they can reward themselves by eating what they want.
      • Resting more. Another way we overcompensate is by moving around less after the workout. Again, this is something you may do without even being aware of it.

      Maximize It

      To get the most out of your workouts, pay attention to what you do the rest of the day by:

      • Keeping a food journal. Tracking your meals and calories is a simple way to make sure you're not eating more to offset your workouts.
      • Keeping an exercise log. You can track your workouts and progress while maintaining an awareness of how active you are on the days you exercise.

      It's easy to get in a rut with exercise and forget the many small things we can do each day that will add challenge and, sometimes, help burn more calories so we can accomplish weight loss goals. The key is to incorporate small changes on a regular basis and get the most we can out of our time and our workouts.

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