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It's NEAT to burn calories by Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.

Updated on April 21, 2011

Everyone knows they should probably do more exercise to lose weight, but generally we think of exercise as being something which requires a time commitment, money spending, as well as significant motivation.  Actually, thanks, but I reckon I'll just sit here in front of the computer a bit more, got a lot to do...  but whether you are a busy person, a lazy person or a skint person - perhaps all three - there are things that YOU can do to make a difference to the calories you burn.

Whilst most public health advice has always focussed on doing structured, specific bits of aerobic exercise, there is growing evidence for the benefits of the incidental stuff in between.  Those short bursts of movement, any level of intensity, whether you are running for the bus, or walking instead of riding the bus - it all adds up.  Dr James Levine has proposed we conceptualise this as NEAT - non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or burning calories doing stuff for its own sake or because we want to:

“…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.”

So how can this help us lose weight, if we're doing it anyway?  Well, the difference is in being aware of it and doing more of it.  Levine's work has show huge differences in the amount of NEAT happening, between lean and obese people - simply, the lean people move around more, not down at the gym but just in every day life.  They can burn double the amount of calories in this way, and the difference really adds up.  For people carrying a lot of extra weight, one 'neat' bonus is that moving your weight around actually takes and uses up more energy, than it does for a skinny person doing the same activity.  What's not to like?

Making a conscious effort to increase your NEAT means you have to get up off your backside more often - this is a good thing for so many reasons.  Because sitting and lying down is actually associated with higher risk of death and serious disease - yes, statistically the more time you spend off your feet, the worse it is for you.  Of course if your work involves sitting down there might be little you can do, but being aware of your NEAT levels might get you take breaks and stand up and move around - even briefly, such breaks are associated with reduced abdominal fat and metabolic risk.  Speaking as a homeworking writer with every professional excuse never to budge off my backside, I am going to take action to maximize my neat by:

Taking the stairs.  One rule of thumb that will help without being too challenging, if you have to up less than two flights then walk it instead - or if it's more than two flights to the floor you want, walk two then punch for the elevator.  And you can walk down a LOT of stairs without exhaustion but still boosting your NEAT.

Wearing a pedometer.  Do you know how many steps you take in day?  Fellow homeworkers: prepare for a shock, not least the difference between days you are sat at your desk vs weekends when you might be out shopping or socializing.  Having the counter on you every day helps you become conscious of the need to get up and move, or make time for a refreshing stroll now and then.  If you feel geekily inclined (like I sometimes do) put it all in a spreadsheet and make graphs and track your trends... but remember, making spreadsheets wont boost your NEAT by one calorie!  So only do it if it will help your motivation.

Cleaning up.  Anyone who pops round on me unexpectedly will learn that simply having a tidy home and garden isn't always sufficient motivation in itself to get me on my feet.  However, when you keep the pedometer on, along with some energising music, you can really get a burn going, AND feel good about the outcome.  Gardening especially is great weight-bearing and toning, which builds bone strength and muscle fiber - and muscle fiber burns more energy than fat when you aren't even doing anything.

Parking and walking - where I live I have no choice but to drive to the store, BUT I can raise my game by parking further from the door, or parking outside the town and walking in if I am not expecting to be overladen.  I don't get my car dinged by other people's trolleys either!  Use public transport wherever you can as well - in many cases it's cheaper and greener,  but from a NEAT point of view it pretty much always involves a short walk at either end. Win-win!

Drinking more water.  Not only does this detox your cells, but you also have to get up and walk off to another room far more frequently, in fact you give yourself no choice however busy or absorbed you are in what you're doing!  You can ignore your promise to yourself to take a 5 minute walk break every hour, but you can't ignore your bladder...  Also staying hydrated suppresses hunger, and helps heal your muscles aching from all that yard work.

Investigating standing desks.  OK so I may spend an inordinate proportion of my life in front of a laptop, but I am really committed to checking out ways of doing so without sitting all the time.  I'll update on this if it works out, can't imagine the effect on my typing output at present, but it's worth further investigation.  You can also buy desks with built in treadmills or exercise cycles, if you really want to check this out!

Finding reasons to walk - whether a social activity with friends, a shared family outing, or even a professional meeting, I am going to ramp up my NEAT but trying to do it on the move.  Walk meetings are fun and invigorating, and a quick lunchtime walk on a workday demonstrably improves productivity and creativity in the afternoons for any professional person.  Boost blood and oxygen supply to your body, and the same goes for that major organ in your skull!

So what are YOU going to do, to raise your NEAT?  Please share your ideas and suggestions, and we'll all lose our mouse potato writer's backsides in time for the summer!


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