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A normal dogwalk is a great example of a "non-workout-workout" that will keep you fit! Photo by Honest Paws

The DAO of NEAT: How you can get fit without the gym

Many professionals are under the misimpression that the fact that they may not have time to work out an hour a day means that their fitness prospects are doomed. FALSE.

On the flip side, the part of the population that leads the Peleton board every day may believe that this is all they need to do to get shredded. FALSE.

What’s missing in both of these assumptions in the fact that there are 24 hours in a day, and even if we use one of them to run 6 miles, do a bootcamp class, or rock the weightroom, there are still aboutt 15-16 hours waking hours in the day. And what you do in THOSE hours is what drives your fitness destiny.

I am going to talk to you today about NEAT – what it is, why you need it, and how you can use it as “insurance” for being active every day.

woman in white lace dress holding desk globe
Photo by Slava

The world is your gym – The Fitness Professional can Exercise Anytime, Anywhere

It’s all about being “NEAT”

NEAT is a fancy term coined by those in the biz for “Non exercise activity thermogenesis -” a fancy word to refer to all of activity you are doing when you are not exercising or sleepiing.  It is important to focus on this, for several reasons. First of all we may not always have time to work out every day.  Second, if your idea of fitness is working out for an hour, then taking a seat, there wil be problems because your metabolism will slow down – so the fact that you go to the gym for an hour should not justify taking an uber instead of walking, or sitting all day at your desk, or worse, the couch.

NEAT is a significant and overlooked component of energy expenditure

In my post about cardio, we reviewed the Calories in Calories out (CICO) equation:

Calories in= Calories out (CO)

CO= BMR +TEF +TEA + NEAT = Your basal metabolic rate + thermic effect of food + thermic effect of acivity + non-exercise thermogenesis

‘BMR’ is Basal Metabolic Rate. This supports the daily functions in your body, like breathing. You can’t do much about this part. .

‘NEAT’ is what we have been talking about, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This can mean getting out of bed,, bustling in the kicthen, rushing your kids to the school bus, or even just fidgeting while seated.

‘EAT’ is Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This is the Peleton, doing yoga, going for a run, anything where you are planning and intentionaly exercising.

‘TEF’ is the Thermic Effect of Food. As we reviewed in the naturally thin post, some foods can increase the calories burned from the thermic effect of food, like protein, or hot sauce.

Being fit is about being active, not just working out hard an hour a day

This article from the Journal of International Society of Sports Mediicine (which is really worth a read) specifically calls out NEAT as burning 10 percent more calories on the energy expenditure size than EAT, which only burns 5 percent on a daily basis. . The more weight you lose, the harder you will need to work to burn calories from exercise. And, the more you suppress “NEAT”, the more susceptible you are to weight gain. It’s an easy pattern to fall into when you kill it in a spin class to reward yourself by lounging on the couch the rest of the day. But the hours you spend outside of “normal exercise” actually matter more.

Exercising is definitely a part of weight loss and control, but it cannot carry the load. Whereas NEAT is a significant part of calories burn. Thus, the more sedentary you are, the more likely you are to be in an excess calorie posiion. Which is WHY so many people experience going on an exercise kick and not losing any weight. Or worse, even gaining. This is partly due to “compensatory eating,” (which we will talk about in the next Saboteur post) but in a large part due to the lack of overall activity throughout the day. It’s also because, as another study shows, people grossly overestimated the amount of calories that they were burning through exercise, especiallly high-intensity activities.

Components of total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). BMR = basal metabolic rate; NEAT = non-exercise activity thermogenesis; TEF = thermic effect of food; EAT = exercise activity thermogenesis; REE = resting energy expenditure; NREE = non-resting energy expenditure. Adapted from Maclean et al., 2011.
Photo credit: Trexler, Smith-Ryan, Norto, Metabolic Adaptation for Weight Loss: Implications for the Athlete, via Creative Commons, license granting limited permisison for use available here.

Most corporate jobs are set up to discourage NEAT

If you are a doctor, a nurse, a hairdresser, or work in retail, you have a leg up on NEAT. Your job is naturally active. I have a friend who is a nurse in the ER and she is on her feet 14 hours a day. She has time to do yoga once or twice a week but not much else. She usually has to quickly down half a sandwich or a banana between breaks and she eats a big bowl of ice cream every night when she gets home. Yet she’s very thin, and even complains about involuntarily losing weight (yeah, let’s get out the violin). The point I am making is that her “NEAT” is probably maxed out and so any small percentage of calorie burn she’s missing out on is almost neglible. She’s burning calories all day long.

On the other hand, think about most “corporate” jobs. Whether we are lawyers, consultants, or in sales, these all have a predisposition to be sedentary.Also, we are still in the COVID-19 virtual office era.. This is somewhat of a double edged sword. On one hand we can take advantage of not being confined to an office all day, but on the other hand, with the predominance of zoom calls, there is a propensity for us to be sitting hunched in front of the computer all day long. I noticed that when I was in the office, I was constantly getting up to take a coffee break, refill my water bottle, go to the restroom, go over to a colleague’s office and ask a question, go to the printer, and get out for a bit and get my lunch. Most of that is lost at home.

How can we get NEAT at home

person holding knitted textiles
Folding and putting away laundry = working out! Check! Photo by Dan Gold

According to research, NEAT CAN BURN UP TO 350 CALORIES A DAY! To put that in perspective, that’s about the same calories you would burn by jogging for an hour.

This does not mean that exercise is not important, or part of a holistical wellness plan. However, as a foundation, it will take a lot of the pressure off to understand that you can get most of your “exercise” outside of the gym.  So here are my suggestions to get more NEAT:

  1. WALKING. WHILE YOU WORK. When you are on calls, pace, go for walks outside or hop on a treadmill, if you have one. If you have not considered it already, I would get one of those walking floor treadmills. In this era of “cameras on” that choice can be tricky, but there is a growing acceptance of people walking in the spirit of mental health. Also, finding the right circumstances to walk is a judgement call. For example, you probably would not want to do so in a one on one call with your boss, but in team all hands calls, large meetings, or catching up with your peers, this is totally legit. In fact what I end up doing if I am catching up with one of my colleagues one on one is tell them that I am walking and make it a walking meeting for us both. See nore tips in my article on ZOOMWALKING!
  2. COMMUTE USING YOUR LEGS When we go back to work, walking can be a major part of your day agian. If you live and work in an urban area, walking is the best way of transportation you can possibly embrace. I walk about 3 miles, everday, to and from work.   All you need to do is invest in a couple of pairs of cute sketchers and you have your walking shoes.  For winter months, flat boots are your best friend.  If that seems overwhelming, try walking to a further away subway stop and work up. If you drive, try to get your steps in as much as possible at the office. Take the stairs, get up and walk to talk to a colleague instead of emailing or instant messaging. Whether at work or at home, go to the restroom the furtheest away from you. Drink plenty of water. You should be doing so anyway (remember my PFfCW formula) and it makes you have to go to the restroom more, which means more walking. You can also use the “walking meeting” technique with your colleagues in the offic.e
  3. USE YOUR DOG/FRIENDS/SIGNIFICANT OTHER TO YOUR ADVANTAGE: Walk your dog in the morning, your kids to the bus stop, Playing with dogs and kids also counts as NEAT, and you get the advantage or bonding in between. Make family or friend get togethers active, like a bowling date, a tennis match, golf, or checking out a new store or coffeeshop.
  4. INVEST IN A VARIDESK/STANDING DESK: Whether in the office or at home, I have a standing desk. By standing while working, you will naturally burn more calories than sitting. Also, when you stand you naturally move around more, like shifting from side to side.
  5. MINIMIZE ONLINE SHOPPING: This suggestion is a cross-over one – many of us are getting vaccinated already, but understandably may not feel safe being in a lot of public spaces. Nevertheless, we are trainsitioning to that world again, and in that world, we have the opportunity to be more active by doing errands. So grocery shop in person, walk to get lunch or dinner, or coffee. Do all of these errands at off-peak hours to save time. Also, when you are at the store, use a basket, not a cart (you will also spend less money!)
  6. SET TIMERS TO TAKE BREAKS AND STRETCH YOUR LEGS. I have at least one or two time slots blocked for stretching my legs. This is another way you can protect your time, as well. Especially if you work from home,  set a timer to get up and move every hour.
  7. BE ACTIVE WITH CHORES AROUND THE HOUSE- cooking, cleaning, taking out the trash, or even just organizing papers or files are all NEAT. The nice thing about working from home is that we have the opportunity to make time to do this throughout the day. Sometimes if I am taking a break I will go and empty the dishwasher, or pre-chop vegetables. I intentionally squat and reach as I am putting items a way. Don’t let an automated vacuum do the job – vacuum and swiffer the floor yourself. Wipe surfaces at least once a day. You would be surprised by how much this all adds up.
  8. STOP ORDERING ALEXA AROUND LIKE YOUR SERVANT. Get up and turn on the lights, or the music. Or walk over to the window and see if it’s raining!
  9. ORGANIZE OFTEN. If you ever watched the show or read the book, The Art of Tidying Up with Marie Condo, you know that the way that she folds clothes is really efficient but also movement-intensive. Whether it’s cleaning up toys, organizing kitchen cabinets, clothes, or files, any kind of arranging and rearranging involves moving around and burning calories. Make it fun, too, by blasting your favorite music and dancing around.
  10. FIDGET. As I said in my post about being naturatlly thin, fidgeting can burn up to 800 calories a day. So even if you are sitting, shake a leg, roll out your neck, stretch, bounce, whatever. Just MOVE.
Just say YES to playing, with dogs, kids, or even going for a game of pool or bowling. Good for the mind and the body. Photo by Chewy

Key takeaway

All of the above may seem like a lot when you consider it at once, but doing just a little bit a day can make a big difference. Fitness is about cumulative actions, not one workout or one meal. By integrating activity into your everyday life, you can make the world your gym.

More: Non-exercise activity thermogeneiss: A NEAT appraoch for weight loss – National association for sports medicine.

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