Post No.: 0358
‘Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis’ (NEAT) is about your metabolism when doing activities that we wouldn’t normally or formally call sports or exercise. This includes walking to the shops, looking after young children or doing household chores. (Not included are sleeping or eating though, unfortunately!) Well like a calorie consumed is a calorie consumed – a calorie burned is a calorie burned. Any kind of physical activity will burn calories. It all counts!
It’s true that human ancestors, and indeed other animals in nature today, didn’t or don’t need to go to the equivalent of gyms. Human ancestors didn’t need to specifically do any formal exercise at all simply because their ordinary daily routine was active enough, due to hunting, foraging, crafting things, walking and manually carrying things everywhere because there were no vehicles, for instance. In the modern world, you can increase your NEAT by routinely taking the stairs instead of lifts, conducting meetings while standing up, tending to the garden or yard, and so on. Activities like fidgeting and typing count too – these activities aren’t normally energy-intensive enough on their own but they do contribute too.
Being sedentary for too long seems to be the fuzzy killer – getting up from the chair regularly is what helps keep the fuel inside of you burning at a good rate. Every little bit of physical activity helps, whatever form it comes in, especially if you don’t currently formally exercise at all or you hate sports or formal exercise even. So every calorie used adds up, just like every calorie consumed adds up – whether you do 5 minutes of activities here and there that add up to 30 minutes per day (exercise snacking), or if you want to do one 30 minute block of activity per day.
However, it seems to be better to get up and do a bit of walking or other physical activity every single hour of the waking day than it is to be sedentary for several hours in a row and then going to the gym for an hour or two in the evening. And you don’t actually have to sweat at all. There are still some physiological health benefits to be gained for doing regular physical activities that aren’t highly intensive or sweaty, as long as you do enough of it in total.
Really, doing more NEAT activities instead of spending time in the gym can ‘kill four birds with one stone’, as it were – you get the physical exercise, which is obviously good for your health, you can help the environment, such as by walking or cycling instead of taking motorised transport for short journeys, and you can possibly save some money too, such as by saving on petrol or the annual gym membership fee that a lot of people barely get their money’s worth anyway. (Reasons for why people don’t make the most of their gym memberships yet pay for it anyway or don’t cancel it include initial good intentions that don’t pan out (e.g. New Year’s resolutions), subsequently being too busy/disorganised to even find an hour a week to do it, finding that the gym is too crowded and/or intimidating for them whenever they do go, and even just psychologically liking keeping a membership card in their wallet instead of cancelling and effectively admitting to themselves that they’ve failed in their fitness goals.)
A NEAT physical activity is also frequently directly productive in your life. Unless as part of training for a competition or job, running on a treadmill doesn’t serve any productive purpose other than exercise itself (and maybe a bit of mindfulness or listening to music) but if you walk to work then you’re actually travelling somewhere for the purpose of needing to get somewhere. Although not as intense, it might use the same amount of time too. An activity like washing your clothes by hand is physically active (wringing out wet clothes can also help fight osteoporosis in the forearms) and you get some clean clothes in the end too! So you can be active for other productive purposes rather than just for being active for its own sake. It makes sense, and it’s even more effective for those who claim to not have enough time to dedicate to just being physically active in a gym. We can have specific goals or wish to work specific parts of our body more than others when in the gym, and we may be able to work out more intensively and get sweatier when in the gym (or home gym) – but it otherwise makes total sense to make some daily or routine activities more manually active rather rely on machines such as washing machines, cars or lifts.
Cooking instead of ordering takeout, washing the dishes by hand, walking downstairs to do something yourself rather than asking somebody who’s already down there to do it for you, and other seemingly little NEAT things all add up to do good for us – just like all the seemingly little bites of food snacks or sips of calorie-laden drinks here and there all add up to do bad for us if our calorie intake exceeds our calorie needs too frequently. So it’s not strictly about ‘going to the gym’ – it’s about moving about and raising our heart rate and breathing a little faster, however this happens, and there’s therefore a vast world of activities out there we can try, from practical tasks that also save money or train skills to games or active hobbies that are purely for social reasons or fun (e.g. DIY or crafting).
You can still be mindfully present when performing NEAT tasks. And you can still listen to music when doing many of these activities – in fact, if you listen to upbeat music when walking or doing housework, you might move faster and thus burn calories at a faster rate than usual when doing your normal everyday tasks that must be done. Minute-for-minute, the more intense the physical exercise or activity, the more calories that’ll be burned, logically. Woof!
NEAT activities might help explain why some people who don’t ever go to the gym stay at a healthy weight despite how and what they eat. Some people appear to eat incredibly fast and/or unhealthy options yet stay slim or of normal weight because they (subconsciously) self-regulate their intake well by balancing those unhealthy options and meals with healthier options for their next meals, or by even skipping some meals so that on aggregate they’ll overall consume a healthy quantity of calories. Their binges may seem salient and thus stand out more memorably but they’re relatively rare, and any binge is regulated with lower calorie meals that follow. One-off large binges seem to be better than regular smaller binges (although not necessarily when it comes to alcohol) – an extra biscuit every day is worse for putting on weight than a big one-off Christmas feast during Christmas. People who aren’t overweight and say they ‘eat whatever they want’ tend to be those who normally choose healthy options most days.
When not really thinking about it, they have default healthy rather than unhealthy habits – for example, they may be quite fidgety people (even when sitting down), they restlessly walk or move about regularly, when they’re up they walk fast, they don’t mind standing rather than sitting if they’re waiting for someone or something, they don’t drink or only drink a small amount of alcohol per week or even per month, they eat out only rarely and don’t eat many or any processed convenience foods, they cook meals from scratch then sit down to eat them or whenever they eat anything else, they don’t have late night snacks and don’t snack much or maybe at all between meals (they’ll properly count such things as meals or as part of meals), they understand that family packs are for sharing or at least for splitting across several consumption occasions, they don’t tend to lead stressful lives (they’re happy, although is it the lower stress that leads to happiness, happiness that leads to lower stress, both or some other factor that causes both?), they tend to sleep well, and are active whenever they can be (e.g. taking the stairs rather than the escalators).
So people who appear to eat a lot and formally exercise very little don’t tend to have higher resting metabolisms – they’re just doing lots of little or hidden (sometimes subconscious to themselves) things that keep their weight down, such as regulating their big or unhealthy meals with smaller or healthier meals next time, and doing lots of small and regular NEAT activities. They have healthy or balanced routines overall, even though on the odd and salient occasion they seem to stuff themselves with food. Basically, no one breaks the laws of physics (the law of conservation of energy or the first law of thermodynamics in this case) by being able to create energy from nothing or destroy energy into nothing! Simplified – calories that aren’t converted into thermal and/or kinetic energy (physical movement) are stored as chemical or potential energy (fat).
We can change the environment to encourage more NEAT activities, such as placing the entrances/exits closer to the stairs than the lifts when designing buildings, and creating more cycling-friendly paths and zones to encourage more people to cycle to and from work. Such things would be considered ‘nudges’.
In brief, being more physically active doesn’t necessarily mean doing formal sports or exercise – it includes simple day-to-day things like taking the stairs more often, walking to a further bus stop, and carrying the grocery shopping in baskets rather than in a trolley if possible.
Woof. I reckon we should all go NEAT and tidy our rooms then!