Home » Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and Your Health

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and Your Health

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.

Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis

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.

fidgeting is a form of non-exercise activity thermogenesis

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.

singing in car

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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10 responses to “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and Your Health”

  1. […] exercise snack different from standing up and stretching or walking to the kitchen (this counts as NEAT activity), is increasing your heart rate. You should target an activity that gets you breathing faster and […]

  2. […] boogying may not quite be exercise, is does count towards the amount of NEAT in your day. NEAT is non-exercise activity thermogenesis. It’s low intensity activities usually done over a short period of time. But throughout the day […]

  3. […] your non-exercise daily movement can also have major health benefits, such as decreased chances of many chronic health conditions.  Some people even think that […]

  4. Dear Dr. Scott Lear. About Graphic of “Percent of Day Calories”, is not referenced. Are you the author of this graphic? If I use it in a Seminar or a Course, how can I reference this graphic correctly? Is not a graphic hard to do it. In a few minutes, can be done but, i.e., if you are the author I’d prefer to reference you. Thank you very much. Very interesting concept NEAT. I am a College Degree in Physical Exercise and Sports, speciallized in P.E. for Health, Colleged in Spain, Murcia Region. My honour to meet you. ANGEL

    1. Hi Angel, thanks for asking. I created it myself based on estimates in the literature. There similar figures figures used on other articles as well. Feel free to use it, or as you said, it’s simple enough to do your own. The percentages are estimates and can change from person to person but they give the reader a good idea of where our calories are burned. Let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks! Scott

      1. Thanks for your kind attention, Dr. Lear. I am creating contents for a Elearning Course about New Guide WHO for physical activity November 2020, and its physiological fundaments.
        The figures about Physical Activity for Teenagers are absolutely terrible. 80% don’t accomplish WHO requirements 2020 of Physical Activity!!!
        I am a College Degree in Physical Activity & Sport Sciences, mainly for Physical Activity for health. I have worked on it for some years, with CardioVascular Risk Factors Patients.
        I will mention you, ie, if I add something about your very interesting article “EXERCISE, PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
        Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and Your Health”.
        If you tell me how about I must mention this article and the author way, please be free asking for me. I will use your image, as you authorized me, and perhaps, some paragraph of your article.
        Thank you very much for your kind attention.
        Regards from Spain.

        Mobile: 699.829505

      2. No problem. I think citing my name and the article/blog website is fine. Thanks for asking.

  5. […] NEAT is the abbreviation for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Our body needs energy and it burns calories for three functions — resting, digestion, and physical activities. […]

  6. […] and in other sedentary activities, which can be replaced by light activities. Light activities, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), are at an intensity below a brisk walk. This is the majority of activity many of us do and […]

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