How Non Exercise Activity Can Help You Lose Weight

The Secrets of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)

We all know how to lose weight.  If you want to lose weight you have to use up more calories than you are taking in. So you have to eat less and you have to do more exercise. But what if there is a non exercise way of burning up those extra calories? Professor James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. believes there is a non exercise way of burning off those extra calories and has coined the term NEAT which stands for Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.

What is NEAT?

Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is the energy we use up for everything that is not sleeping, eating or sport like exercise. It is everything else we do during the day; so it can be things like: walking to work, typing, working in the garden or just plain fidgeting. Seemingly trivial physical activities can increase a person's metabolism, the rate at which they burn up calories, quite substantially.

Your daily NEAT is the cumulative effect of  every exothermic (i.e. energy releasing) action that you take from the time you get up to the time you go to bed.  The number of calories you burn through the day can have as much to do with your daily activities as how long you spend in the gym. In fact there is some evidence that people who go to the gym are potentially less active through the rest of the day and may overcompensate.

People like agricultural and manual workers who are up and about all day have high NEAT, while office workers, who sit in front of a screen all day have low NEAT. We know, or should do that sitting on our bottoms is not good for us but is exercise the antidote or is there a non exercise answer to the how can I lose weight question?

NEAT and inactivity studies

Obesity studies often rely on self reporting but Dr. Levine, using motion tracking underwear that he likes to call 'fidget pants', studies subjects under carefully controlled conditions where he monitors exactly what they eat and their slightest movement whether it be lying down, walking, standing or sitting. Participants in Dr. Levine's inactivity studies consumed all their food in a laboratory for two months and were told not to exercise.

In the carefully controlled conditions Dr. Levine and his team were able to account for for every calorie consumed and how it was expended as energy. They wanted to know why some people gain weight while others who eat exactly the same amount of food don't. After assessing how much food each of his subjects needed to maintain their current weight Dr. Levine began to feed them an extra 1000 calories a day. Some of the subjects piled on weight while others appeared not to.  

It took six years, with the help of the motion tracking underwear, to work out why. It wasn't that the subjects who stayed thin were exercising more, they were not allowed to. The subjects who stayed thin were moving around more. They were doing little things like using the stairs instead of the lift, trotting up and down to get water, bustling around doing chores or simply fidgeting.  On average the subjects who gained weight sat for two more hours per day than those that didn't.

Sitting is bad for you

It's obvious really that sitting around too much is bad for you but Dr. Levine's team go further. They question the idea that if you sit around all day but get aerobic exercise a few times a week you will offset your sedentary habits. Inactivity studies suggest that exercise is not the answer. Inactivity research suggests that this makes as much sense as suggesting that you are OK to smoke  a packet of cigarettes a day as long as you go jogging twice a week.[2740]

When we sit the rate at which we burn calories drops dramatically to about one per minute; a third of what it would be if we were up walking about. Insulin effectiveness, drops within a single day and the body becomes less effective at removing glucose from the bloodstream and preventing it going to fat.  The risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and of becoming obese rises. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides and sucking up fat from the bloodstream falls reducing the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol. 

A study tracking the health of 123,000 Americans between 1992 and 2006  found that men who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20% higher than men who sat for three hours or less. [2740]   It  seems sitting too much can reduce your life expectancy.

So how can NEAT help you lose weight?

NEAT can help you to lose weight by focusing you on little things; the tiny changes that can help you to lose weight. In the world of NEAT small changes matter. Dr. Levine and team are looking for ways people can redesign their environment to encourage more movement. He has introduced ideas like the chairless classroom where pupils are encouraged to learn their alphabet crawling around alphabetized mats on the floor and treadmill desks where employees can exercise as they work. 

These aren't solutions an individual can implement on their own but just being conscious of the need to get off your bottom and move around more can work wonders.  Get up from your desk and taking a short walk every hour or so. Walk around while you are taking that phone call. Catch up with a colleague walking in the park rather than sitting at a table. Take a walk during the TV ad break instead of reaching for the remote.

Once you are aware of the NEAT issue you will get ideas about how you can lose weight all the time.  It's not the hours spent in the gym that ultimately count. It is your non exercise activity that will help you to lose weight.