The Importance of NEAT Activity for Your Health

Fidget Your Way to Health

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Sitting on a Stability Ball. Getty Images / OJO Images

One of the reasons I'm the "alternative" fitness expert here on About.com is because, despite my double-degrees in exercise science, I have mild disdain for the modern exercise industry. It's not that I think the industry itself is bad, but that many experts approach fitness with a very black and white mentality, like "If you don't follow XYZ program or XYZ diet, you'll never achieve maximum health."

The problem with this view of fitness is that it's incredibly limiting and doesn't give people the flexibility to just be active. I write for a living. This means that much of my day is spent sitting in front of a computer screen. My job itself is incredibly sedentary. I need exercise to help me maintain a healthy life.

But I also watch my parents - they live on five acres and spend hours each day tending the property - cutting down brush, watering plants, fixing fences, and caring for chickens. Even when they're not outside on the property, they're inside, "puttering." Very rarely do they sit down and watch TV or stare at a computer screen for hours. They may not follow a formal exercise routine, but they're some of the healthiest people I know, and they're currently in their mid-60s. They're not on any medications, and they rarely see a doctor, except for routine check-ups. I hope I'm as healthy as they are when I'm their age!

What is NEAT Activity?

While my parents may not be following a formal exercise routine, they are racking up tons of NEAT activity, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). In a nutshell, NEAT activity is the calories burned doing any activity that isn't attributable to sleep, eating, or formal exercise.

It's the calories you burn while walking around your house, fidgeting, or playing outside with your kids. On the surface, these activities might seem minor, but over the course of a 24-hour day, the calories burned can really add up.

Understanding Daily Calorie-Burn Totals

Over the course of the day you burn calories three ways:

  • Through BMR (basal metabolic rate) - the calories your body burns to maintain basic human function, such as cellular turnover and breathing
  • Through the thermic effect of food (TEF) - the calories your body burns to digest and assimilate the calories you consume
  • Through daily activity - the total combination of calories burned through planned exercise and other NEAT activity

Your BMR accounts for the largest percentage of total daily calorie burn (roughly 60%-75%), and TEF accounts for the smallest (roughly 10%). That means that daily activity accounts for roughly 15%-30% of your total daily calorie burn, depending on how active you are.

Here's the thing: You can add more planned exercise to your day, but there's an upper limit as to how much is considered healthy.

Generally speaking, those who exercise for more than two hours each day are at risk of developing a disorder known as exercise addiction - where a person prioritizes exercise over everything else in life, to the point where physical complications can arise, such as injuries, depression, amenorrhea, and isolation from others.

If you're looking to increase your daily calorie burn without taking exercise to its extreme, NEAT activity is one way to do it.

How to Partake in NEAT Activity

My best advice is this: Stop sitting so much. The very act of standing is an incredible calorie-burn booster. If a 150 pound person stands for an hour, he or she burns roughly 150 calories. If that same person sits for an hour, he or she burns roughly 116 calories. The very act of standing burns about 34 more calories per hour for this individual than sitting does. Over the course of an eight-hour work day, that extra calorie burn adds up to about 275 calories. That's significant!

But even minor movements, such as fidgeting, or taking five minutes an hour to get up, walk around, and stretch, can help boost energy and burn calories.

When at home, make a point to avoid settling down on the couch - chat with your family while standing in the kitchen, or head outside to get active and walk with your kids to the park and push them on the swings. Take up a hobby that keeps you moving, such as gardening, or volunteering at the local animal shelter. And, always follow the other standard guidelines for increasing daily activity, such as taking walking meetings at work, parking farther away from the store, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

When you combine a regular exercise routine with a concerted boost in NEAT activity, you'll be surprised how energetic and healthy you feel.

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