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.
The world is your gym – The Fitness Professional can Exercise Anytime, Anywhere
It’s all about being “NEAT”
NEAT is a fancy acronym for “non exercise activity thermogenesis,” which generally refers to the activities you are doing when you are not exercising or sleeping. It is part of the TDEE equation (which we will review again below) which we typically overlook. More specifically, NEAT includes energy expended to:
- Maintaining and changing posture (laying, standing, walking)
- Stair climbing
- Spontaneous muscle contraction
- Cleaning, singing, and other activities of daily living. These activities do not involve moderate- to vigorous- intensity exercise and occur at a trivial or a low energy workload for minutes to hours.33,34. These somewhat unplanned and unstructured low grade physical activities can have a remarkable effect on metabolic rate and, as a result, stimulate greater energy expenditure over time.
NEAT is a significant and overlooked component of energy expenditure
In the earlier chapter on the DAO of Metrics, we reviewed the calories in, calories out (CICO) equation:
Calories in= Calories out (CO)
CO= RMR +TEF +TEA + NEAT = Your basal metabolic rate + thermic effect of food + thermic effect of activity + non-exercise thermogenesis
“RMR” is Resting Metabolic Rate, meaning the calories that you burn when your body is totally at rest.
“EAT” is Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This is the Peloton, doing yoga, going for a run, anything where you are planning and intentionally exercising.
“TEF” is the Thermic Effect of Food. Some foods can increase the calories burned from the thermic effect of food, like protein, or hot sauce.
Dr. James Levine, who is the head of the NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) lab at the Mayo Clinic, says that the average person burns up to 350 calories more per day if they’re moving more. Further, studies have shown that weight gain, diabetes risk and obesity are directly related to sitting time and/or to a low level of NEAT that may be independent of exercise.
Thus, 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 when taking a seat, there will 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 vs. EAT
Out of the total daily energy expenditure (TDEE,) the majority of that (about 65-70 percent) comes from RMR, where we have the least control. 20 percent of TDEE is from physical activity, which is composed of EAT (traditional forms of exercise like running and weight lifting), and NEAT your daily micromovements). These are the two factors where you have the most control. The remaining 10 percent comes from TEF, or the Thermic Effect of Food. While this is not technically part of “NEAT” it is worth addressing how we can address increasing this quotient, which we will at the end of this chapter, since it is related to non-exercise activity that still burns calories, like chewing.
The most critical fact is that the majority of these calories burned, as much as 20 percent, comes from NEAT. EAT—as in busting your butt on the Peloton—only accounts for 5 to 10 percent of daily calories burned.
Now let’s look at a different equation—the hours in a day. Let’s say you sleep for 8 hours a day (as per saboteur #6, you should). Then assume you manage an hour workout. There are still fifteen hours left a day. If you spend them sitting, not taking the stairs, shopping online, and laying on the couch, don’t be surprised if you are confused by why you are working out and not seeing results.
Being fit is about being active, not just working out hard an hour a day
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 burned. Thus, the more sedentary you are, the more likely you are to be in an excess calorie position. 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,” 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, especially high-intensity activities.
Easy ways to be NEAT that don’t suck time out of your day
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 holistic 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:
- WALKING FROM POINT A TO POINT B: We need to go places and do things – work, running errands, school. Instead of taking ubers, driving, subway or buses, walk as far as you can. If it’s way too far to walk, consider personal or public transport part of the way, for example asking to be dropped off a mile from the location. At the office, walk over to talk to a colleague instead of sending them a message or email if they are also in the office. Walk to the coffee shop or lunch place to have your coffee and lunch instead of having it delivered.
- ZOOMWALKING: 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 judgment 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.
- DRINK A LOT OF WATER: Whether at work or at home, go to the restroom the furthest away from you. Drink plenty of water (as you should, because only 1.5 percent dehydration can cause headaches, lack of focus, and other problems). You should be doing so anyway (remember the DAOFitLife PFC 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 office
- USE YOUR DOG/FRIENDS/SIGNIFICANT OTHER TO YOUR ADVANTAGE: Walk your dog in the morning or 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 friends get togethers active, like a bowling date, a tennis match, golf, or checking out a new store or coffeeshop.
- USE A 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. Depending on your height and weight, you can burn up to 2-300 additional calories by just standing up on and off for 4 hours versus sitting. This is the equivalent of Also, when you stand, you naturally move around more, like shifting from side to side. If the structure of your office does not have a standing desk, you can order a portable one and keep it in your space (or locker, etc.).
Comparing sitting, standing, walking and running
The sheer benefit of standing can be seen in this activity comparison chart, assuming a 140lb, 5’5 female. Looking at it you will see that over a 4 hour period, standing can burn up to 262 calories more than sitting. That’s over half of the calories one could burn from running for an hour and it’s a lot less physical effort. Whereas, walking can burn 322 hours in an hour, but overall it actually does not even burn more calories than you do at rest for a few hours.
The ideal combination, of course, is to be active and get some exercise. But as you can see, you can substitute standing and sitting for four hours and burn more extra calories overall than if you ran for an hour. Yes, clearly if we did an apples to apples of hours and compared 4 hours of walking and running it would be a lot more, but no one who is a working professional has time to do that everyday indefinitely.
Further, if you were to take it further and alternative standing and sitting for even longer, say for a 12 hour workday, you could almost burn as
|Activity||Sitting||Alternating Standing and Sitting||Running||Walking|
|Duration||8 hours||4 hours each||1 hr||1hr|
|Delta from sitting||0||262||16||-177|
- MINIMIZE ONLINE SHOPPING: This suggestion is a cross-over one—while the pandemic changed the way in-person shopping looked and felt for a time,we are transitioning 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, 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!).
- 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.
- 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 away. Don’t let an automated vacuum do the job—vacuum and swiffer the floor yourself (do you remember the “Whip It Swiffer commercial?). Wipe surfaces at least once a day. You would be surprised by how much this all adds up.
- 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!
- 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 by blasting your favorite music and dancing around.
- FIDGET: 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.
- CHEW YOUR HEART OUT : Chewing and digesting food increases the thermic effect of food or Dietary Induced Thermogenesis (DIT). Such foods that especially increase this quotient include:
- Lean proteins
- Citrus fruit
- Dark leafy greens
- Coffee and great tea
- Apple cider vinegar
All of these foods or drinks either activate thermic effect by the effort your body needs to break them down, or the antioxidants it provides that stimulate your metabolism (e.g., coffee, green tea, apple cider vinegar. Many of these foods also involve chewing to break the food down, which is also a step of the digestion process. Chewing food slowly can burn more calories per meal, and chewing gum can burn up to 11 calories per hour.
Now, let’s talk about how you can get fit while doing all those back to back meetings.
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 to get NEAT at the office
Are you familiar with the concept of microtransactions? This is how many video games and apps make their money. It is not the main purchase but the small transactions which over time accrue them billions of dollars in revenue.
Think of NEAT at the office this way. You have so many opportunities to be mobile and connect with people – in the break room, going to grab coffee, or lunch. Here are some ways you can get NEAT at the office:
- Go see someone IRL. If you are in the office the same day as your colleague, instead of messaging them from 5 feet away like a millenial, go and talk to them. Most of the time, issues can be resolved so much faster with a simple conversation than 5 emails back and forth.
- Use your office gym. Most offices have free gyms. You can quickly sneak down during lunch and get a great 20 minute workout either doing speed intervals, resistance training for a certain body part (like arms), or even just doing some stretch work.
- Drink a lot of water. This will require you to get up and use the washroom, and refill your water, at least a few times during the day.
- Stand as much as you can. You can get a standing desk like I suggested above, or most global workspaces also have these freestanding high tables that you can use.
- Use the Steve Jobs meeting method. Steve Jobs was famous for conducting walking meetings – it does not heart to emulate greatness. Start a trend in your office of being active, like walking meeetings and going to group fitness classes together after work.
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.
- Non-exercise activity thermogeneiss: A NEAT appraoch for weight loss – National association for sports medicine.
- Why exercise won’t help you lose weight, supported with 60+ studies (Vox)
- See also: Saboteur Series: The Sedentary Athlete (DAOFitLife)