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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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