The human body is constantly consuming energy to power the wide range of functions it accomplishes throughout the day. Tons of molecular processes are used to store and later consume this energy, but they are all organized into three general categories: energy expenditure for the necessary processes of your body like digestion, circulation, breathing, etc.; energy burned for muscular function during exercise; and the energy burned for everything else.
This third category is referred to as Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT. Included within the NEAT umbrella are all physical activities that aren’t rigorous exercise. Examples of non-exercise physical activity might include walking, stretching, playing guitar, typing on a keyboard, or even something as slight as fidgeting in your chair throughout the workday.
Whether you’re trying to lower your bodyweight or just increase your daily activity levels to break away from sedentary behaviors, boosting your non-exercise physical activity is a smart move. It’s easy and once you turn it into a habit you’ll be doing some of these exercises without even realizing it. Read through this guide to learn some of the best strategies for boosting your NEAT to break out of a sedentary lifestyle.
(Note: Want our elite trainers to break you out of your sedentary lifestyle? Start your Fitplan free trial today!)
NEAT Vs. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis makes up the majority of a typical person’s energy expenditure excluding purposeful exercise you might do at the gym and the basal metabolic rate, or BMR. Of those two, BMR makes up the vast majority of our calorie expenditure. If you imagine someone living a completely sedentary lifestyle, for example, 90% or more of their total daily energy expenditure might be owed to BMR.
There are a handful of slightly differing equations people use to calculate BMR. The Harris-Benedict formula is frequently used to establish BMR.
BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)
BMR = 66 + (13.7 × weight in kg) + (5 × height in cm) – (6.8 × age in years)
Although this is more of a rule of thumb than a definite number you can rely on to calculate your energy balance on any given day, the equation is helpful for getting a ballpark number of how many calories your body will need just to power necessary processes like the thermic effect of food, breathing, and keeping your heart beating.
Helpful Hint: Want to get your heart rate up? Try some of the plyometric exercises in our Bodyweight HIIT at Home Fitplan!
How Much NEAT Happens in a Day?
According to James A. Levine, MD, a professor at the Endocrine Research Unit at the Mayo Clinic, daily occupational NEAT can vary by as much as 1,000 calories between individuals. Overall NEAT can vary by as much as 2,000 calories.
A large part of this difference is because some people have more active jobs or use more active hobbies to fill up their leisure time. Sitting on the couch will burn calories, but you could eat about 15 grapes and gain back all the calories burned while sitting on the couch for an hour. Just standing up will cause your body to burn calories at a higher rate and spontaneous physical activity will increase that rate even more.
The U.S. Department of Health recommends between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise for adults. NEAT can easily fill an hour of every work day while you complete other tasks, allowing you to meet the U.S. Department of Health’s suggested activity level.
The Role of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis in Weight Loss
Just like any other negative energy balance, otherwise known as a calorie deficit, making your total daily energy expenditure higher than what you take in through food and drink will lead to weight loss. The rate at which this weight loss occurs will vary depending on your starting weight, BMR, and the scale of the negative energy balance.
One very important thing to consider in order to give NEAT its due is that the majority of people lead a primarily sedentary lifestyle. Even those who manage to hit the gym for a couple of hours a few times a week likely get in the car to go home and sit on the couch once they get there. NEAT-inducing physical activity is key to breaking through these sedentary behaviors even if you do workout regularly.
Any spontaneous physical activity that causes NEAT in your body’s muscles helps promote weight loss. More physical activity also helps your cardiovascular system work better, which will improve your general wellness too. It might be a bit much to claim that NEAT can single-handedly curb obesity, but it can help burn body fat if used properly.
Are There NEAT Exercises?
Strictly speaking, physical activity that causes NEAT should be spontaneous physical activity and not intentional exercise according to the definition given by Dr. James A. Levine. NEAT exercises are on the scale of small adjustments to a daily routine unlike the HIIT routines, bodyweight exercises, cardio, and lifting exercises you can find in our many Fitplans.
But that critical difference is exactly why the role of non-exercise activity thermogenesis is so important for weight loss and overall wellness. NEAT is specifically not what happens at the gym but rather what happens in all the other moments of the day.
To the extent that you can add some movement to your workday by fidgeting, stretching, and things like that, there are a few things you can do to provoke NEAT while you’re sitting at work, driving around, or just enjoying some much-needed leisure time.
Helpful Hint: Find some great home-workout tips in our Bodyweight Essentials Fitplan!
3 Best Spontaneous Physical Activities to Promote NEAT
1. Wrist, Leg, and Back Stretches
Unlike a warm-up routine before walking or working out, these stretches can be done sitting down, while on the phone, and some even while driving. It’s important to stretch at such times to break up long periods of sedentary behavior. Some popular ways to stretch the legs include calf raises and hamstring stretches. Although you might need to stand up to do a hamstring stretch, you can do sitting calf stretches underneath the desk at work.
The wrists and neck are even easier to stretch. You can simply extend your arms and roll both wrists clockwise and counterclockwise to relieve tensions there, and a neck roll has much the same benefit for your neck.
Some weightlifters are terrified of the potential effects cardio can have on their gains, but walking is a great way to get some cardiovascular exercise without burning enough calories to significantly change your body mass if you’re already bulked up. If you are walking to lose some body fat, it is possible to walk enough to create a negative energy balance that can lead to weight loss.
If you’re a bit confused as to why walking fits under the NEAT umbrella but other physical activities like running doesn’t, it has more to do with the intensity of the physical activity. Running is also more intentional and therefore qualifies more as exercise activity thermogenesis than as NEAT. To help you set targets, invest in a pedometer so you can count your steps.
Since the dawn of industrialization, people have been inventing devices that make our daily tasks easier to accomplish. These days, even chores that used to be physically taxing like yard work can be done sitting down. Ditch some of these miracle inventions if you want to break up your sedentary lifestyle. For example, if you use a push mower and a rake instead of a ride-on mower, yard work can be a great source of physical activity.
There are many other chores besides yard work that can help you increase your daily energy needs and curb weight gain. Even if there isn’t much cardio involved, tasks like sweeping and mopping provide some large NEAT increases if you do them the hard way. Grocery shopping is a great way to add some walking cardio to your day.
The Thermic Effect of Food and NEAT
To really make non-exercise activity thermogenesis work for you, you should make sure to limit your energy intake as well as increase the amount of physical activity you do. However, the thermic effect of food should also be taken into account.
Your body needs energy to digest food and process nutrients. While it does play into your body’s daily energy needs, it’s hard to find out how much energy your body is burning to process food. The important thing to understand about the thermic effect of food is that, while it does take some energy, there are no “negative calorie” foods. If you eat something outside of zero-calorie processed foods, your body will get some amount of calories.
Nonetheless, overfeeding is a primary cause of fat gain. For general health promotion and obesity management in particular, it’s vital to limit your energy intake.
Helpful Hint: Get a cardio boost with the HIIT workouts in our Body Elevate Fitplan!
How to Increase Your NEAT
There are some easy ways that busy adults can increase their NEAT to promote an energy balance more in line with public health experts. Try a few of these methods along with the three spontaneous physical activities already mentioned to burn more calories throughout the day.
1. Fidgeting Helps!
Fidgeting is a great method for increasing NEAT for anyone who spends long periods driving or sitting at a desk. Even office workers whose fingers are busy typing away can benefit from tapping their feet or wiggling their toes. Fidgeting won’t lead to weight loss by itself, but it’s a great way to fill in lots of dead time to increase your NEAT.
2. Stop Sitting All the Time
Standing desks have been growing in popularity with workers from L.A. to Rochester. Some office workers are even investing in treadmills that fit underneath their desk so they can get some cardio in while they’re working.
You don’t have to go that far, although that intentional exercise will burn more calories than just standing. Sitting down is one of the most damaging elements of our modern sedentary lifestyles. It can affect blood circulation and damage our posture over time. Standing is the easiest way to increase NEAT.
3. Move Around More
Whether you’re standing in line or waiting for a conference call to start at your new standing desk, hopping from foot to foot or dancing a little jig can break up long periods of stillness and increase your NEAT levels.
Another great way to move more throughout the day is to force yourself by parking further away from your destination, taking the stairs, or walking to talk to people instead of calling them on the phone. Pedometers come in handy to measure these efforts as well.
4. Boost Your Orexin
Studies like the one at this DOI show that increases in orexin, a neuropeptide, counteract low physical activity levels including decreased NEAT. There are some holistic ways to give your body’s orexin system a boost, including fermented foods and sunlight. Green tea, omega 3s, and fiber can also help.
Even if you are increasing your NEAT with other methods, consider stimulating your orexin system. Orexin boosts wakefulness and can help you feel sharper throughout the day. Plus, these foods are generally healthy for a variety of other reasons beyond orexin stimulation.
5. Get a Pet
Pets are a fun way to increase NEAT. Dogs especially encourage their owners to go on walks and play active games like fetch. If you’re having trouble motivating yourself, a dog whining to go outside might be just the thing you need. Plus, having a pet is rewarding in many other ways too. As the National Centers for Disease Control says, animal companionship makes people healthier overall.
Helpful Hint: Get a fast workout with our 7-Minute Bodyweight Express Fitplan!
Weight loss and general wellness are both common goals for many people. Our modern era is defined by tech inventions that have made many physical activities obsolete, which is one of the things that has created the present obesity epidemic.
Bodybuilders, lifters, and anyone trying to accomplish a particular weight loss goal should have their NEAT levels in mind. Just as rigorous physical activity can help create a negative energy balance for weight loss, so can your NEAT be increased to help your body burn calories. When paired with the right dietary precautions, NEAT and exercise can increase your calorie deficit and therefore help you with weight loss.
When we say we burn calories, it isn’t just an expression. “Thermogenesis” means heat-burning. The bodies of all mammals create heat as a result of energy generation in specialized tissues that include our skeletal muscles. Many people focus on exercise activity thermogenesis, or intentional exercise programs when they set out to accomplish a weight loss goal. While this is logical because intentional exercise like running or weightlifting can burn calories at a higher rate, NEAT can help you burn small amounts of calories constantly throughout the day.
Energy expenditure is down for most of the population in western countries thanks to technology that allows us to work from home, shop online, and in general, avoid any serious physical activity if we want to. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis plays a huge role in human obesity and can also help to prevent obesity when employed in tandem with regular exercise and dietary adjustments. The obesity epidemic is largely a result of both the incredible ease of access many people now have to sugary, fatty, calorie-rich foods and the sedentary lifestyle that has become so common in much of the world.
Sedentary behaviors like crashing out on the sofa when you get home from work are pervasive in our society of convenience, but it’s easy to break them up with NEAT. Even small periods of relative activity with neat is enough to curb the effects of a sedentary lifestyle to some degree. Plus, it’s much easier to include more NEAT-producing physical activity in a typical daily routine than it is to pencil in some gym time.
It will also take you much longer at the gym to burn calories like you can with simple NEAT activity like fidgeting or a leisure-time activity like playing guitar or going for a walk. Sure, deadlifts and flipping tires burn a ton of calories, but the energy expenditure is so great that you’ll most likely exhaust yourself if you try to do either exercise for a comparable amount of time to NEAT activities.
Increasing your NEAT is a great way to promote weight loss at times when a full-fledged workout isn’t possible. Plus, it will make life more enjoyable. While we all like our smartphones and social media applications, it’s nice to get away from them and get moving instead. Pair these NEAT-boosting activities with the right diet and regular exercise and you’ll be in the best shape of your life in no time.
(Note: Want our elite trainers to help you get up and moving? Start your Fitplan free trial today!)