Are you someone who fidgets a lot? Or maybe being motionless comes natural? Or perhaps you’re right in middle. I’m sure many of us had parents telling us to sit still. But all that knee bobbing, foot tapping and finger twiddling may be good for your health. Called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT), these and other types of low duration, low intensity movements may be more beneficial than we thought.
The term NEAT was coined in 1999 by Dr. James Levine. His research group was trying to understand why some people gain weight and others are resistant to it. They overfed 16 young adults 1000 kcal/day (similar to eating four Big Macs extra a day) for eight weeks. The amount of weight gain varied widely from 1 to 10 pounds. While exercise stayed the same, those people who gained the least amount of weight increased their NEAT activities the most. This included more activities of daily living, more standing up, more fidgeting and maintaining posture for longer.
A few years later, the same researchers fitted healthy sedentary adults (some lean and some with obesity) with activity monitoring sensors. Over ten days, the leaner adults spent less time sitting and more time standing and walking about. While both these studies were small, and not definitive, they did identify an overlooked aspect of activity.
How NEAT Works
Caloric expenditure occurs though three main ways: resting metabolic rate, digestion of food and physical activity. Resting metabolic rate is the amount of energy needed to keep your body alive. This commonly ranges from 1200 to 2000 kcal/day. Of the three, it accounts for the largest amount of calorie needs. The digestion of food burns a small but variable amount of calories. And as one eats more food, more calories are needed.
Physical activity accounts for the last bit of our energy requirements. This is the one that gets attention because it’s the one we can control. While exercise is often the main focus, physical activity is more than just exercise. It’s walking to the store for groceries, doing household chores and even little things such as brushing one’s teeth or making the bed.
In terms of calories, exercise contributes a small portion to daily use. For example, a 30-minute brisk walk may burn only 100-150 calories. This may be why exercise isn’t an effective strategy for managing weight levels. That being said, exercise does far more for your health than just burn calories.
For most of us, NEAT accounts for the greatest portion of daily calories. However, it varies from person to person. The average adult spends 6.5 hours sitting per day. Now sitting does expend calories (although very little), about 7% more than lying down. It also depends on what you’re doing. Typing burns another 3% more.
In the study above, the lean people burned approximately 352 more calories per day than the people who were obese. This is the equivalent to an hour of jogging, 50 minutes of continuous tennis or 45 minutes of cycling. Yet it was achieved from subtle changes in activity. And it’s far more calories than most people expend through their exercise sessions.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis and Your Health
But the benefits from NEAT go beyond the effects of counting calories. It can improve risk factors such as blood cholesterol and blood sugar. And performing low intensity activity throughout the day, such as walking and standing, may be better than a single bout of exercise while sitting the rest of the day. It can be as little as walking for two minutes for every 20 minutes of sitting.
Fidgeting is probably the most basic form of NEAT. We often associate it with impatience and nervousness, but people who fidget while sitting tend to have a lower chance of early death compared to people who don’t fidget. And it may even counteract the negative effects of sitting. While it’s not clear why, fidgeting burns about 50% more calories than sitting alone. In addition, all that movement likely keeps your metabolism going.
For most of us, the majority of our waking hours are spent at work. And this is one area that can make a big difference in your health. At the two extremes are the many of us who have jobs where we sit all day and those of who are on their feet all the time. For example, a letter courier walking for six hours can expend close to 2400 calories. Over time, this amount of activity on the job can reduce your chances of getting heart disease.
Ways you can be NEATer
While it may not be possible to change your job, there are things you can do to get more NEAT activity. Look for opportunities throughout the day. Can you walk in place while brushing your teeth? What about singing on the commute to/from work? It uses twice as many calories than sitting quietly. Here are some other opportunities to be NEATer:
- Fidgeting- This simple movement can add up to a lot more activity throughout the day. However, it may not be for everyone. In mice, fidgeting seems to be genetic and it’s believed this may be the case for humans as well.
- Stairs- If you only have one to three flights to go, why not take the stairs? It’s quicker than the elevator and it’s twice the work of standing still.
- Stand up and walk- Set an alarm to remind you to get up and walk around every 20-30 minutes. Walk in place while watching TV or every time commercials come on.
- Use a body ball- We’re not going to avoid sitting. And it’s still going to take a lot of our time each day. Spend some of that time sitting on a body ball. The increased effort needed to keep you balanced with a good posture works your core muscles and requires more energy.
- Take transit- Transit is a great way to avoid driving during rush hour and increase your NEAT. The installation of light rail transit was associated with an increase in travel-related activity in people living nearby. This came from the walk to and from the transit station.
- Chores- I’ve mentioned this in previous blogs, but it’s worth mentioning again. Household chores such as vacuuming and washing windows can be similar to a leisure walk. Even laying out sheets and making the bed each day can add up.
Increasing your amount of NEAT activity is a way you can reduce your time in purely sedentary activities and increase your daily physical activity. It’s also an option for people who may have challenges with more vigorous activities. However, most NEAT activity is too low of intensity to improve your fitness and therefore it should be used to complement (not replace) your daily target of at least 20-30 minutes of moderate/vigorous activity per day.
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