Guest post by Paul Fairbairn, BSc (hons) in Sport and Exercise Science, MSc in Nutrition & PhD student
At one point or another we have all probably come across a sign or seen an advertisement recommending we take the stairs instead of the lift, choosing to cycle or walk to work or taking your coffee to go and heading out for a walk on your break. These are all talking about exercising the NEAT way. For example this is the poster that greets me each morning when I’m tired and tempted to jump in the lift to my office.
These seem like very small changes in our daily habits, could they actually make any difference?
These messages are there to try and encourage us to increase our physical activity levels, and more specifically they are aiming to increase our ‘NEAT’ levels. NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis or, to put it quite simply, it’s the energy our bodies burn outside of sleeping, eating and planned exercise activities. This includes everything from strenuous activities like gardening or manual labour to typing, or even sitting fidgeting in your chair, all of which contribute towards the amount of energy our bodies require.
So why should we be concerned about exercising the NEAT way?
At the moment obesity is a huge health issue with 61.7% of people in the UK being overweight or obese as of 2014. This increase in the proportion of people who are overweight and obese isn’t something that has happened over night, nor something that happens in a short period of time. Weight gain tends to occur over months and years, as a result of a long term energy imbalance whereby we consume more calories than we require. This may only be a relatively small energy imbalance but, over long periods of time, it can add up to significant weight gain.
When discussing energy balance it’s important to look at what actually contributes towards our energy requirements, so here is a quick whistle stop tour of factors that affect energy balance.
Basel Metabolic Rate (BMR) – This is the energy expended when an individual is at complete rest, just to keep your body ticking over. It is largely dictated by an individual’s size – the bigger you are and the more muscle you have the higher your BMR will be. In people with sedentary occupations BMR accounts for around 60% of their daily energy requirements.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – The energy required to digest, absorb and store nutrients from food. This accounts for around 10-15% of energy expenditure.
Activity Thermogenesis – The amount of energy required to fuel or physical activity. This of course varies greatly between individuals, ranging anywhere between 15-50% of total energy expenditure, and incorporates both planned exercise and NEAT. Believe it or not NEAT actually is the biggest contributor to most people’s activity thermogenesis levels, even in individuals who exercise regularly!
Low levels of physical activity and adoption of more sedentary behaviours is strongly associated with increased risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes (Hassapidou et al., 2013; Ekblom-Bak et al., 2010; Kriska, 2003). Unfortunately one of the consequences of our modern society and the innovations that come with it, is that it’s now very easy to be sedentary. We can buy just about anything we want and have it delivered to our doors, cars are much more affordable and advancements in robotics means less manual labour in several workplace environments. Along with the availability of energy dense foods, this change in our environment is a major contributor towards a term experts call an “obesogenic society”, where putting on weight becomes almost too easy.
Interventions to promote a healthy energy balance have traditionally been focused on encouraging moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity during free time combined with dietary advice. This strategy has met with mixed results in long-term studies. Hence an alternative strategy has emerged that focuses on reducing the total time spent doing sedentary activities.
So how much of a difference can increasing our NEAT make? Well you may actually be quite surprised. For example climbing the stairs could burn between 10-50 times the amount of energy than taking the lift (Lanningham-Foster et al., 2003). Therefore if we take enough opportunities to increase our NEAT levels, a sedentary individual could feasibly burn an extra 200-600kcal per day (Villablanca et al., 2015).
We also have to bear in mind that physical activity isn’t all about calories in and calories out, increasing activity level is also associated with a number of other benefits including better heart health, reduced stress, alleviation of low mood and increased work place productivity.
How to increase NEAT
There are many ways that you can increase your activity levels, and picking something that’s easy to incorporate and enjoyable is more likely to become a daily habit than temporary fix. Here are just a few examples of ways to embrace your inner NEAT freak.
- Arranging a walking meeting
- Grabbing lunch or coffee to go and eat on the move rather than at a desk
- Stand up for 15mins out of each hour at work
- Use the stairs instead of the lift or escalator
- Walk or cycle to work
- Get off the bus one stop earlier
- Chose a parking space that’s further away
- Replace sedentary hobbies like watching TV with going out for a walk or tending to a garden
- Chose to physically go shopping rather than ordering online
So next time you’re faced with the choice between stairs or the lift, sitting or walking, or slumping on the sofa and getting outdoors to do some gardening think about becoming a NEAT freak and all the benefits that come with it.
Ekblom-Bak, Elin et al. “Independent Associations Of Physical Activity And Cardiovascular Fitness With Cardiovascular Risk In Adults”. European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention & Rehabilitation 17.2 (2010): 175-180. Web.
Hassapidou, Maria et al. “Association Of Physical Activity And Sedentary Lifestyle Patterns With Obesity And Cardiometabolic Comorbidities In Greek Adults: Data From The National Epidemiological Survey”. HJ 12.2 (2013): 265-274. Web.
Kriska, A. M. “Physical Activity, Obesity, And The Incidence Of Type 2 Diabetes In A High-Risk Population”. American Journal of Epidemiology 158.7 (2003): 669-675. Web.
Lanningham-Foster, Lorraine, Lana J. Nysse, and James A. Levine. “Labor Saved, Calories Lost: The Energetic Impact Of Domestic Labor-Saving Devices”. Obesity Research 11.10 (2003): 1178-1181. Web.
Levine, James A. “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)”. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 16.4 (2002): 679-702. Web.
Villablanca, Pedro A. et al. “Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis In Obesity Management”. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 90.4 (2015): 509-519. Web.
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