Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – It’s NEAT!

by | Nov 8, 2010
By regelzamora

By regelzamora

Today’s guest post is by Travis Saunders, MSc, Certified Exercise Physiologist. Travis and his colleague Peter Janiszewski, Ph.D, MSc, are both PhD trained scientists who have a fantastic blog over at PLoS Blogs, Obesity Panacea.

While Summer Tomato is more food-centric, Obesity Panacea focuses on exercise and physiology.  Perfect match, right?

I asked Travis if he would be kind enough to write a post on how to get more exercise without having to actually go to the gym (NEAT), something both busy and lazy people alike can appreciate.

Personally I’m a big believer in NEAT. A year and a half ago I stopped taking BART to work and started walking instead. To my surprise this added only 5 minutes to my commute time and is infinitely more enjoyable.

Even though I already logged 4-6 regular cardio and strength training workouts per week, this added mileage caused me to drop another 3-5 lbs that has never come back. It also gives me time to listen to my favorite podcasts!

But what is NEAT exactly? For that I’ll turn the mic over to Travis.

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – It’s NEAT!

by Travis Saunders

For decades, we have been told of the benefits of physical activity, and with good reason – regardless of body weight, people who exercise live longer, healthier lives than people who don’t exercise.

In the past, the focus has been on performing structured sessions of moderate or vigorous exercise (e.g. 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise on a bike or treadmill).

While intense physical activity has a tremendous health impact, a growing body of evidence suggests that accumulating short bouts of low-intensity physical activity throughout the day can also have substantial health benefits, which may even rival those associated with more vigorous sessions.  This low-intensity physical activity is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT.

The concept of NEAT was proposed by Dr James Levine, who defines it as:

“…the energy expenditure of all physical activities other than volitional sporting-like exercise. NEAT includes all those activities that render us vibrant, unique and independent beings such as dancing, going to work or school, shoveling snow, playing the guitar, swimming or walking in the modern Mall.”

I can understand why some people would be skeptical that activities like gardening or mall walking could have a measurable impact on health.  After all, those things aren’t exercise, right?

Fortunately, it turns out that the body doesn’t care whether those activities are exercise.  James Levine’s work has shown that NEAT burns an average of 330 calories per day in healthy individuals (and up to nearly 700 calories/day in some people!), and that obese individuals perform drastically less NEAT than their lean counterparts.

Levine has also made convincing arguments that NEAT could burn up to 1000 calories per day when properly incorporated throughout the work day.  These results suggest that NEAT can burn a tremendous amount of calories, which has obvious implications for weight maintenance and obesity prevention.

But the other key benefit to increased NEAT is that it reduces sedentary time, itself a strong predictor of both death and disease.

Independent of total physical activity levels and other risk factors like abdominal obesity, recent evidence suggests that time spent being sedentary (e.g. sitting or lying down) is a strong predictor of metabolic risk, as well as mortality.  This means that regardless of how much they exercise, people who spend more time sitting are at a higher risk than those who sit less.

New research has even shown that merely taking more frequent breaks from sedentary activities (e.g. standing up) is also associated with reduced metabolic risk and abdominal fat levels.  The reasons for these associations are still being worked out (it probably is to due to changes in LPL and glucose transporter protein activity in skeletal muscle, which are altered by even short bouts of inactivity), but the findings are consistent and have been observed in both adults and children.  Since NEAT includes activities like standing and walking, any increases in NEAT will obviously result in reductions in time spent in sedentary activities.

So, how can you reduce your time spent being sedentary and increase your NEAT levels?  Luckily, it’s not very hard.

Here is a brief list, and for more suggestions, please read “10 Ways to Become More Active”, which can be found on Obesity Panacea.

6 Ways To Get More NEAT

1. Buy a Pedometer

Pedometers are beeper-sized devices which are worn on the waist and keep track of the number of steps taken each day.  They are cheap (a good one costs about $20), and are a great way to assess your level of NEAT.  Each week, try to increase your daily step count by 1,000 steps/day, with a goal of reaching at least 10,000 steps per day.  Friendly step-count competitions with co-workers can also be surprisingly fun, and are a great way to promote increased physical activity within the office environment.

2. Take the Stairs

This one is obvious.  I can’t tell you how often I see people taking the elevator up or down one single floor.  It doesn’t save any time, and it deprives people of physical activity.  You don’t have to walk up twenty flights of stairs to make this worthwhile – try to walk up at least one flight, and down at least two, and build up to more flights as you feel up to it.  If you have to go further than you can walk comfortably, take the elevator the rest of the way.

3. Active Transportation

Walk or bike to work and when performing errands whenever possible.  If that is not an option, consider taking public transportation, which almost always involves a short walk at both ends of the trip.  And if you absolutely have to drive, park as far from the door as possible.  It might only add 5 minutes of walking to your day, but that’s 5 minutes you wouldn’t get otherwise.

4. Drink Plenty of Water

This sounds odd, but it’s a trick that I’ve been using for years. If you are constantly sipping water throughout the day, you are going to have to pee at least once every couple hours. Every time you have to pee, you have a guilt-free excuse to go for a 5-minute walk to the washroom and back! To crank it up a notch, use a washroom in another part of your building, which may give you an opportunity to use the stairs as well.  It’s easy to forget to take a 5-minute walk-break every hour, but it’s impossible to forget to go pee.

5. Have “Walk” Meetings

These types of meeting are becoming increasingly popular at my workplace.  Think of all the times that you need to have a 5-10 minute chat with another co-worker or superior.  Instead of doing it at your desk (and potentially annoying your colleagues), why not talk while casually strolling down the hall?  This is another great way to accumulate activity without even noticing that it’s happening.

6. Walk During Your Lunch Break

If you are one of those lucky individuals who has a daily lunch break, why not use it for a short walk?  A ten or twenty minute walk on a daily basis can add up over time, and you’ll almost certainly feel better than if you spent your whole break sitting at your desk.

These are only a few examples, but I hope they illustrate how easy it can be to incorporate more NEAT into your daily life.  Give it a shot, and good luck with your healthstyle!

Let’s have a big round of applause for Travis!

Originally published at Summer Tomato on October 19, 2009

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17 Responses to “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – It’s NEAT!”

  1. Sarah says:

    NEATness counts! (sorry, couldn’t resist) Seriously, this is a great post – I’m a firm believer in the power of NEAT. I’d add a #7 to your list – walk around while you’re talking on the telephone.

  2. Ha – that’s one heck of a long way of saying “Get off your butt” but I like it!

  3. Matt Shook says:

    Great article Travis, thanks for sharing. I totally agree that adding a few small daily “exercise” routines like these can have a big impact over the course of a year or so. I’m felt great ever since I started using my bike as my main form of transportation years ago…I’ve lost weigh, and can even afford to indulge (like uber-dark chocolate & microbeers) more often!

  4. Connie (Ariel Manx) says:

    This is something I REALLY need to work on. I work at home, and if it wasn’t for the fact that my office is downstairs and the bathroom is upstairs, hours would go by and I wouldn’t get off my butt. Days go by and I don’t leave the house except to go get the mail at the end of the drive. Even though I’ve always had a desk/computer heavy job (at least once I got out of college), I sure noticed a difference in my daily activity once I was working at home instead of going to an office every day.

    I try to do a little something around the house cleaning-wise every day to get some calories burned, but some…most…days it doesn’t happen. I need to change that.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Days when I work at home I make it a point to get out of the house at least once. Sometimes I just make an excuse to visit the market down the block, but I think it makes a big difference.

  5. Matthew says:

    Travis, this is great article. You have backed it up with interesting research findings. My job is sedentary and although I work out heavily 3 times a week lifting weights, the research paper you mentioned above (sitting is associated with greater mortality even when controlled for activity level) worries me. I usually take short brakes (5-10min) every 60-90 minutes of work and go outside for a short walk. I have found this to be very helpful.

  6. Travis says:

    Glad that people found the article useful! Working NEAT into your day (and especially your workday) can be a challenge, but I think that the benefits are well worth it.

    Travis

  7. Michael says:

    This was a very interesting read. I actually have been doing these things in a non-coherent way. I recently started taking 5 min walks around my office building for the air and leg exercise. This year i have shed 88 pounds thanks to Great tips and food ideas from summer tomato and her Guests. Thank you for the great read Travis Saunders!

  8. Will says:

    Pedometer-> How accurate are they really? My very few experiences with one was not the best, the pedometer would count steps when I wasnt walking…Suggestions? do you have to but a nice one? Has anyone tried devices like fitbit?

    Thanks for the help!

    • Darya Pino says:

      I’ve tried Fitbit and it’s pretty awesome. But mine broke, which was a bummer. I haven’t done much research on pedometers lately, but I think Travis and Peter reviewed pedometers on Obesity Panacea a few months ago, so you might check with them.

    • Ewan says:

      Hi,
      have used belt clip fit bit and pedometers. but prefer my wrist mount jawbone.
      Accuracy on these devices can be tuned. To me accuracy is irrelevant as I want to know whether today was better than yesterday so if the device is ‘inaccurate’ (which it’s not), all I really care about is “is today’s number better than yesterday’s number”
      Hope this helps.

  9. NewMe says:

    Not all pedometers work very well, not all bodies are suited to wearing a pedometer and not all types of clothing lend themselves to good pedometer results.

    I live in Canada and have found that the most accurate pedometer for me is the el-cheapo Life brand, made by Shopper’s Drug Mart. However, I know that its accuracy depends on my wearing pants that fit nicely (not too snug, not too loose) right around the waist. Tight pants, loose pants, pants that sit lower than my waist all tend to not record every step.

    If I’m lowering or pulling up my pants, a few phantom steps will be added to the total, but if I spend some time in my PJs before getting dressed, these “steps” make up for real steps not counted.

    Body shape also has an effect on the pedometer’s accuracy. My husband, who eats well and reasonably, and walks every day still has a bit of a “beer belly” (yes, that’s with drinking 1-2 beers a week, max; sometimes none at all). The pedometer doesn’t register all his steps. Go figure.

    I find the pedometer does encourage me to walk more and this is important since arthritis and long-term back problems make walking the only exercise that I can do without incurring further pain (no, not even swimming works for me and biking is impossible). I don’t always reach the magic 10K per day, but I try my best.

    As far as NEAT having some effect on my weight, ha! At best, it perhaps keeps me from gaining, but I’d love to have real proof of that. I just have to laugh when I hear about slim people like you losing weight by adding a 5-minute walk per day. Would that it were so easy…

    what I would really to love to have is a device that would accurately measure how many calories I burn in an average day, a high-step day, etc. I know these devices exist, but they aren’t available to the general public. My pedometer calculates calories burned but I have no faith in what it tells me. Virtually all devices and machines are calibrated for the “average” person, who is usually defined as male, 5’10″ish and 150 pounds or so. When an exercise machine tells me I’ve burned 100 calories, I cut it in half and even then I’m not convinced that I’ve burned that much.

    • Rhodia says:

      I live in Canada too, and I prefer the Omron HJ-112 which I bought at Well.ca (http://well.ca/products/omron-go-smart-dual-axis-pocket_1842.html). I especially like that you can just stick it into your pocket rather than clipping it to something. It stores 7 days of data. When setting it up, you also enter your weight and your stride length, so it can be a bit more accurate at calculating calories burned and kilometres walked. I record all my steps in my training log, along with other exercise, and aim to average at least 15,000/day every week (i.e. some days are 10,000 and some are 20,000, but if I add the whole week and divide by 7 it should come out to 15,000 or more).

  10. Dan K says:

    I have seen the effects of NEAT with my dad. He was a big-time gardener (which means I started liking fresh vegetables from an early age) and an active person but did no formal exercise or sports. A few months before he turned 80 he had an incident. His face turned red and he nearly fell out of the chair. This happened twice within minutes of each other. At the hospital ER his blood pressure was 200 / 100. The doctors were unsure why he didn’t have a stroke. From his physical condition they guessed his age at about 65 and would not believe my mom that he was 79. She had to show them his driver’s license to prove his age. Despite seeing my mom living for 20+ years taking medication for her high BP he decided this was a fatal condition, and began to wait to die. He stopped gardening and other things and took up sitting and doing crewel embroidery. Next he took to staying in bed and eventually weakened himself so that he could no longer stand up. It took 10 years to degenerate to the point of death. He died at 90, a skin and bones, partly senile, crancky shadow of what he once was. I refuse to follow in those footsteps! I work in a garden center and get lots of walking and lifting in all day. Now with the help of Darya and Summertomato I am adjusting to healthier eating as well as starting with Pilates. I plan to outlive my “old man”.

  11. Dan K says:

    I forgot to mention I just turned 60 so its about time I make changes to a healthier lifestyle. I also garden so in summer I have a good supply of ultra-fresh vegetables for my table. I see that its snowing here in Chicago so later I will be getting more NEAT exercise at the end of my snow shovel.

  12. Dee says:

    The more I exercise, the more I EAT…. Really need some more NEAT….

    All this working out need to stop!

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