If you’re curious about non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), this article is for you.
We’ll cover what it is, its benefits, and how to increase it.
First, we’ll talk about the health benefits of physical activity in general.
Then, we’ll discuss why NEAT-related activities are particularly suited for improving your health.
Finally, we’ll talk about strategies you can use to increase your non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
If you have any questions at the end, please feel free to leave a comment 🙂
What are the benefits of physical activity?
Physical inactivity, sitting, and lying around are often called “sedentary” behavior (1).
Sedentary behavior has been linked to musculoskeletal discomfort and impaired cognitive function (2), reduced thoracic mobility (3), depression (4), endometrial, colorectal, breast, and lung cancers (5), cardiovascular disease and diabetes (6), cardiovascular disease mortality (7), and all-cause mortality (8).
Physical activity, however, has the potential to reduce, or effectively eliminate, many of these risks (9).
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 150 to 300 minutes of physical activity per week (10).
Now, 150 to 300 minutes might sound like a ton of time to dedicate to exercise.
You might have a job, kids, hobbies, and other commitments all vying for your most precious resource – your time.
If that’s how you feel, you’re definitely not alone.
Fortunately, you don’t have to set aside huge chunks of time to benefit from physical activity.
Instead, you might focus on increasing your non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or “NEAT”.
What is NEAT?
Our total energy expenditure comprises four components (15):
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR), the minimal amount of energy expended to stay alive.
- Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): the amount of energy required to digest our food.
- Exercise-related activity thermogenesis (EAT): energy expended developing and maintaining physical fitness.
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): energy expended for all other physical activity, including at work, during leisure, sitting, standing, walking, fidgeting, doing chores, or hobbies.
Even among people regularly working out, NEAT represents a greater share of energy expenditure than exercise.
Thus, focusing on increasing your NEAT could be a powerful strategy for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
That’s not the only way increasing NEAT might benefit your health efforts.
You might find being more physically active separate from structured exercise to be more time effective.
After all, moving a bit more here and there doesn’t require changing clothes, driving to the gym, working out, driving home, changing again, etc.
Of course, you might wonder if trading structured exercise for smaller bouts of physical activity will actually improve your health.
Indeed, research shows that low-level physical activity, even in small amounts, can really add up in terms of health benefits.
What are the benefits of NEAT?
The studies below might not be about non-exercise activity thermogenesis, per se.
However, they still offer insight into the power of seemingly insignificant physical activity.
A 2011 study found that low-level physical activity for 15 minutes a day (90 minutes per week) was associated with a 14% reduced risk of all-cause mortality and a three year increase in life expectancy (16).
Another observational study in 2016 found that women who sat more than 7 hours per day who fidgeted had a 30% lower risk of death than those who didn’t (17).
A 2019 systematic review concluded that total physical activity – even when accumulated over bouts shorter than 10 minutes – can improve a variety of health outcomes (18).
The review noted improvements in body composition, blood pressure, blood lipids, blood glucose, metabolic syndrome, inflammatory markers, cardiovascular risk, and all-cause mortality.
A 2019 meta-analysis found that continuous and intermittent exercises equally improved fitness and blood pressure, lipids, insulin, and glucose; with a small number of studies showing intermittent activity favorable for body mass and LDL cholesterol (19).
A 2019 randomized controlled trial saw similar benefits from intermittent and continuous walking on body weight, fat mass, and body fat percentage, with intermittent walking leading to increased lean mass and fat free mass (20).
A 2020 meta-analysis found that breaking up sitting with physical activity improved postprandial blood glucose, insulin, and triglycerides, with small advantage over continuous exercise for improving glucose measures (21).
You may or may not find splitting your physical activity into smaller bouts to help you be more consistently physically active (22).
If, however, you focus on making physical activity a habit, it just might stick for the long run (23).
How to increase NEAT
The beauty of increasing your non-exercise activity thermogenesis is that you don’t have to set aside huge chunks of time to do it.
Instead, you can seek out small opportunities to integrate movement into your daily routine.
Consider this analogous to having movement snacks, rather than full workout meals.
Look for the opportunities that are most convenient for you.
Are you able to park farther away from the office?
Would you enjoy taking phone calls on walks?
Could you take the stairs instead of the elevator?
What activities do you enjoy, that you don’t feel like you have to “make” yourself do?
The key idea here is to make movement a regular part of your lifestyle.
Every little bit adds up, and something is better than nothing.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.
Start where you are.
Do what you can.
You’ve got this.