You’ve already read about the benefits of heart-pumping exercise. Research shows that doing 150 total minutes of moderate physical activity per week (broken up however you’d like) is associated with lower BMI and reduced risk of chronic disease.
Here’s something we haven’t covered: Non-exercise movement is just as important.
All of the energy you burn outside of exercise, digestion, and sleep, falls into a category called Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). From pacing while you chat on the phone, to tidying up a room, to singing in the shower, NEAT is the cumulative energy burned by the hundreds of little moves you make all day.
The energy you burn via NEAT plays into a crucial health equation: To lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you consume.
While there are only so many exercise sessions you can fit into one week (or motivate yourself to do), increasing NEAT doesn’t take nearly as much effort. And research suggests that calories burned in small bursts throughout the day can help you get lean.
Small Moves, Big Burn
We’re beginning to understand the magnitude of the impact that NEAT has on metabolic health. Studies show that fidgeting (shifting in your chair, toe-tapping, knee bouncing) can increase energy consumption by 20 to 40% above your resting level. Ambling around, like you do when casually browsing in a store, can double it.
All in all, NEAT is responsible for the vast majority of our non-resting calorie burn.
Given that, you won’t be surprised to learn that study subjects with higher levels of NEAT were able to eat more without gaining fat. One individual expended 69% of the calories he consumed through NEAT.
Chances are, you don’t think about how much you fidget, change your posture, or get up and wander around the room. In fact, research suggests that our brains regulate NEAT on a deeper level. When study subjects are intentionally fed an excess of calories, their fidgeting increases involuntarily compared to subjects who are fed less.
Scientists wonder if NEAT could be our body’s way of burning off excess energy to prevent us from becoming too overweight. It could be that our sedentary lifestyle — jobs, commutes, and forms of entertainment that pin us to our chairs — are inhibiting NEAT and contributing to weight gain.
How to Boost NEAT
It’s likely that some of us are hardwired to fidget more than others. Nonetheless, we all have the ability to increase our NEAT and burn between 100 and 800 extra calories every day. It’s a simple matter of moving more often. Believe it or not, even just standing after a long time of sitting counts.
Here are a handful of ways to make that happen:
• In situations when you can sit or stand, choose to stand. You’re likely to shift your weight around more.
• When you do sit, pick chairs/stools with wheels (or use an exercise ball as your desk chair) — they encourage movement.
• Set an alarm on your work computer or phone to go off every hour. When it does, take 3-5 minutes to stand up, stretch, and stroll.
• Bust some seated dance moves while listening to the radio in your car.
• Stand up when you talk on the phone. You’ll probably start pacing.
• Keep a glass of ice water on your desk. You’ll pick it up, shake the ice, take sips, refill it.
• Put a stress ball on your desk, in your car, next to your couch. You’ll squeeze it when you see it.
• Hang hand towels in your kitchen and bathroom a few steps away from the sink so you have to walk to dry your hands.
• Leave a massage tool where you watch TV. You’ll pick it up and work the tension out of your muscles.
• Put unfolded laundry next to the couch. You’ll fold it instead of sitting down.
• Store a small watering can near the kitchen sink. It will prompt you to walk around, watering plants (note to self: get more plants).
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