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 3 – 5 times per week).
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. Do you have your own non-traditional methods of shaving a few extra calories here and there without stepping into your sweats and going to the gym? Post them in the comments and share with all of us.
If you have questions about how to incorporate NEAT into your healthy lifestyle or how to get moving, shoot me a message and we can chat. I would love to hear from you!