If you dread working out at the gym as much as I do, but you want to stay healthy and live longer, non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the way forward. That’s just a fancy way of saying “moving your butt more”.
Do you feel like exercise is a chore? I confess that I do!
I’ve always struggled to motivate myself when it comes to working out, despite having joined every gym in my area at least once, not to mention trying most other forms of exercise like running, swimming, rowing, cycling, bouldering, Yoga, Pilates and so on. Nothing seems to stick, and I tend to be hard on myself for that.
My mindset started shifting as the pandemic rolled in.
Gyms were suddenly closed and exercise classes were suspended. Live fitness classes via Zoom weren’t for me and I was worried about becoming too sedentary. So, I bought a fitness tracker to make sure I stayed active.
The combination of extra time on my hands, good weather and lockdown led me into my garden, which needed a major rehaul. I spent more and more time outside, digging and planting until my muscles ached. It felt good. And it didn’t feel like “exercise” to me.
Best of all, I noticed that after my gardening sessions, the tracker showed lots of energy being burned!
In fact, the things that I did every day like walking the dog and running up/down the stairs added up to a decent amount of exercise. It had never occurred to me that this stuff “counted” towards my fitness goals. I was doing better than I thought!
The key to your health: NEAT
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is certainly a mouthful, but don’t let the terminology put you off. NEAT is simply the energy that we burn when we’re not sleeping, eating or doing intentional sports-type activity.
In other words, all the things I was doing during lockdown that were registering on my fitness tracker.
At the time, I didn’t know there was a name for it, or that it’s been studied extensively. One of the main takeaways from NEAT research is that not sitting, regardless of whether we’re meeting health guidelines for physical activity, is the true key to a longer and healthier life.
In other words, drip-feeding movement into our days – like going up and down stairs, cleaning, shovelling snow, cooking, walking, standing and even fidgeting – is better for us than doing an hour’s workout at the gym every day but spending the rest of the day sitting in front of a computer.
I’d heard about the long-term risks of a sedentary lifestyle (aka sitting disease), but it hadn’t really sunk in that “not sitting” is a goal in itself, in addition to meeting traditional cardio and strength training recommendations.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated those guidelines to include loads of information about the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and to emphasise the importance of replacing sitting with even light activity (i.e., NEAT). This goes for people of all ages.
In the guidelines, the WHO says that people who are “insufficiently active” have a 20-30% increased risk of death compared to people who are “sufficiently active”. Yikes!
If that wasn’t enough to get me out of my chair, then the hard truths below certainly were. (BTW, I’m standing up as I type, with my laptop propped up on one of my pulled-out dresser drawers.)
Get up…your life depends on it!
According to Johns Hopkins cardiologist Erin Michos, research shows that even for people with high levels of activity, more than 10 hours per day of sitting notably increases your risk of heart disease. Michos also says that too much sitting is linked with Type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Indeed, James A. Levine, a British endocrinologist, obesity expert and author of Get Up! Why your chair is killing you and what you can do about it, famously coined the phrase “sitting is the new smoking”. But in his book, he warns that sitting is actually worse than smoking.
Here are some of the facts that he presents, all based on years of research:
- People can halve their peak blood sugar levels by taking a short walk after eating, lowering diabetes risk
- Going to the gym, even several times a week, doesn’t reverse the harmful effects of prolonged sitting
- Low NEAT is a major factor in obesity
- Sitting causes our triglycerides to creep up, making our hearts function sluggishly
- Prolonged sitting softens the skeleton, increasing osteoporosis risk
- Strolling for an hour a day (vs. sitting) reduces breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women by 14%, regardless of their weight
- Sitting causes more ill health than smoking
- A sedentary lifestyle is linked to higher rates of depression
20 ways to incorporate more NEAT into your life
Given what I’ve learned about NEAT, I’ve adopted a new mindset that’s focused on sitting less and moving more. I’m also going to stop beating myself up for the way I approach my fitness.
Having said that, I know that cardio and strength training are still super important, especially for postmenopausal women like me. What I’m looking for is a way of moving my body that’s more balanced and enjoyable.
If you want to join me in incorporating more NEAT into your routine, here are 20 simple suggestions:
- Go for a short walk after meals
- If your job is desk-based, invest in a standing/adjustable desk & try standing for at least 30 minutes per hour (I appreciate this may be easier for people who work from home)
- If a standing desk isn’t an option, replace your chair with a stability ball
- Get rid of the bin under your desk so you have to get up to throw things away
- Suggest walking meetings with colleagues (pandemic permitting)
- Break up your day with 5-minute walks or stretching – set your alarm to get up every 30 minutes
- Do your own chores (cleaning, washing your car, mowing the lawn, etc.)
- Replace driving with cycling, walking or taking the bus
- Get off the bus one stop early
- Go to the supermarket instead of doing your shop online
- Choose a parking space that’s far from the supermarket entrance
- Take the stairs instead of lifts/elevators
- Get stuck into a DIY project
- Take the dog for a walk
- Practice playing an instrument
- Turn on the music and dance around the kitchen while you’re cooking
- Cook more instead of getting takeaways or ready-made meals
- Walk around while you’re talking on the phone
- Fold the laundry (standing up) or iron while you’re watching TV
- Spend 5-10 minutes washing some dishes by hand before filling the dishwasher
[For a list of more NEAT activities and how many calories they burn, check out this Mayo Clinic report.}
According to Dr. Levine, the “sweet spot” to aim for is an extra 2 hours and 15 minutes of activity a day – this can add up to an extra 2,000 calories burned! When it’s sprinkled across the day, it’s really not that bad.
The mental health benefits shouldn’t be ignored, either. In his research, Dr. Levine found that people who incorporated more NEAT into their lives had increased productivity and creativity, and overall felt happier.
So…are you in?
Let me know in the comments whether you’re planning to incorporate more NEAT into your day.
The original version of this post, “Goodbye Gym, Hello NEAT!”, appeared in Thrive Global on 27th December 2020.