Exercise physiologists are increasingly interested in NEAT exercising, which doesn’t refer to not working up a sweat while you exercise — although that is one of its traits.
NEAT stands for “non-exercise activity thermogenesis.” It’s the energy a person burns when not sleeping, eating, resting or deliberately exercising. It’s also referred to as the “exertion of daily living.”
With the advent of wearable devices that make it possible to measure energy expenditure rather than just count steps, researchers are discovering that dozens of non-exercise activities can be slipped into our daily routine and, when added together, become the equivalent of a stint at the gym or a morning jog.
“We are moving away from the word ‘exercise,’ ” said Barbara Brown, a researcher at the University of Utah who studies physical activity. “Exercise is that thing you do where you have to wear funny clothes, and you have to go to the gym and buy a membership, and you have to sweat for an hour. Some people love that, but many don’t.”
Endocrinologist James Levine coined the term NEAT when he was director of the Obesity Solutions initiative at the Mayo Clinic.
“Anybody can have a NEAT life,” he said.
Brown agreed. “There are little bitty activities you can accrue across the day, and you don’t have to change your clothes.”
So what are these little bitty things?
For starters, said I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology and physical activity researcher at Harvard, act like that constantly moving kid in the second grade who drove the teacher crazy: pace while on the phone, take the stairs, wiggle on agility balls, do random under-the-desk movements such as stepping or swiveling and schedule walking meetings.
According to the Compendium of Physical Activities, a reference that reports energy expenditure, ambling around the office burns three calories per minute. Although this might sound trivial, it can add up to a real workout if you do it a lot. Climbing stairs burns up to seven calories per minute. Studies have revealed that some of the fittest people are mail carriers, waitresses and preschool teachers, professions that require near constant motion.
Home maintenance can be an excellent form of NEAT. If a workout feels like a chore, maybe it’s better to do a real chore and have something other than well-rounded glutes to show for it. Carrying groceries upstairs, hand-washing dishes, shoveling snow in the winter, digging in the garden in the summer, carpentry, rearranging the furniture and scrubbing floors stand out as stellar energy burners.
“Making your bed is a surprising one. It uses as much energy as walking,” said Todd Manini, a researcher at the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida who runs the CHORES study, an effort to understand the metabolic requirements of various daily chores.
Incorporating NEAT into your work environment has more than just health benefits, Levine said. Among the changes he’s made is moving the trash can away from his desk so he has to get up and walk a few paces to throw away things. Some of those adjustments might seem like inconveniences, but, in the long run, they’re not. In fact, Levine and his team found the opposite to be true: Active work environments promote more productivity, less stress and less absenteeism.