Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
Do you view exercise as a bore and a chore? Something you “should do” but is not fun? Movement should be enjoyable. That is the concept behind Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis also known as NEAT.
What is non-exercise activity thermogenesis?
As the name implies this is the process of expending energy, (also known as burning calories) by doing activities that are not commonly referred to as exercise. Thermogenesis is defined as the production of heat, and in the human body this heat production comes from burning calories.
As long as your are alive your body is in a constant state of metabolism, or burning calories to produce energy to keep your cells alive. Movements that require you to use your muscles increase the metabolism and result in even more calories to be burned.
What are examples of non-exercise activity thermogenesis NEAT activities?
NEAT can include almost any activity such as:
- Normal walking in the house
- Breathing, more than when resting
This list could obviously go on and on and these are just a few examples you may not have considered as non-exercise. The more movement involved in the activity the more calories burned. Small increases in movements throughout the day can add up.
How do you calculate non-exercise activity thermogenesis?
To calculate the impact of NEAT you must determine your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), which is expressed in calories burned. There are three TDEE components and NEAT is one of them. Getting more movement and activity via routine simple things you do daily can be a great way to burn more calories.
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – This is an estimate of the calories your body burns doing things that keep you alive. Such as breathing, digesting food and pumping your heart muscle. Imagine if you were bedridden and rested the entire day, you would still be expected to burn this many calories.
BMR = (10 x weight in kilograms) + (6.25 x height in centimeters) – (5 x age in years) – 161
It is much easier to calculate by plugging your numbers into a calculator like myfitnesspal provides that converts the numbers for you.
2. Activity level – This is your NEAT, or level of movement over and above the BMR. Even if you exercise for 30 minutes per day but are sedentary at a desk for much of the day, you activity level could still be low. Charts like the one below can help you determine your activity level, remember exercise is not part of this factor.
- Almost no movement 1.2
- Low level of movement 1.35
- Moderate level of movement 1.5
- Intense movement 1.6
- Extreme movement 1.75
Multiply your BMR x activity level to get calorie requirements per day. This would be considered maintenance calorie need. Think of this as the amount of calories needed to prevent gaining or losing weight.
3. Exercise – This is time you spend specifically working out in any form. The more you exercise the more calories you burn. Add these calories to the result from number 2 that is your TDEE.
Therefore, you can increase calories burned by increasing your non exercise activity thermogenesis!
1. Why NEAT?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends all people get a certain amount of physical activity. This is because physical activity has been proven to decrease the risk for a number of diseases and the need for many medications, which can have dangerous side effects. For patients who are age 18-64 the recommendations are:
- At least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity activity
Example: brisk walking
- At least 2 days a week of activities that strengthen muscles
Example: light yoga moves
For people 65 and over they recommend the above plus:
- Activities that improve balance
Example: Standing on one foot
2. Why is movement so important?
If you do not like to exercise in a more typical fashion, you are not alone. Some people just don’t enjoy running on the treadmill or hours on an elliptical machine. That is why the NEAT concept can be so intriguing.
Natural human instincts are to be hunter and gatherers, which meant being physically active to survive. Today that is not the case, we have machines that do everything for us. Our society has transitioned from mostly physical labor to much more sedentary work, where people sit at computers for hours.
We were meant to move and engage in activity on a regular basis. Therefore, when we move we experience an elevated mood and increased sense of optimism. This has sometimes been referred to as a “runners high.”
Can you get a runners high even if you don’t run?
When we move our brains release chemicals, known as endorphins that make us feel good and primed to connect with others.
Research has shown this is an important component to our wellbeing and feeling of social belonging. Overall increased movement both in the form of exercise and NEAT make us more social, better at cooperating and interacting with other people.
In addition to endorphine release from movement, the brain also releases more dopamine. This chemical is responsible for many things in the brain including feelings of reward and ease of movement. The more we move the easier it becomes as our muscles develop to provide increased stability. This also helps with our mood and lowers the risk of depression as we feel rewarded as the level of dopamine rises based on our activity level.
Can you become addicted to non exercise activity thermogenesis?
Movement can become a psychological dependence on because has immediate impact on mood. Exercise is great medicine especially for mental health. People who suffer from anxiety can also find that movement or excercise can be a great way to protect their body from feeling anxious.
So what do you do if you HATE exercise, but you want to be healthy and feel great?
3. How can I increase my NEAT metabolism?
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis can be increased in many different ways. If losing weight is the goal, adding a few squats throughout the day most days per month can add up to real weight loss. Small changes can add up over time to long lasting weight loss if calorie consumption is also maintained or decreased.
If your exercise routine is not producing the results you want then consider adding one or more of these activities into your daily routine.
|While you are….||NAET|
|Surfing the web||Do arm circles.|
|Working at a desk||Stand up every 15 minutes.|
|Trips around home or office||Take the long way from point A to point B|
|Commuting||Ride a bike where you need to go.|
|Cleaning||Treat this as a game, that is timed so you need to finish quickly.|
|Shopping||Walk up and down isles quickly.|
|Doing chores||Do burpees in between the chore.|
|Television||Do sit ups during commercials.|
|Cooking||Do squats between steps in the process.|
|Wake up||Do a few quick push ups against the wall.|
|Browsing social media||Try yoga poses.|
|Getting gas||Do calf raises while the pump is running.|
|While making coffee||Do lunges while you wait for it to heat up.|
|Brushing your teeth||Balance on one leg.|
|Putting on your shoes||Stretch and touch your toes.|
|Play with your kids||Run around, be silly, wrestle around.|
|Going to the grocery||Go on skates or roller blades.|
|Before bed||Practice deep breathing for a set amount of time.|
|While talking on the phone||Do jumping jacks with one arm only.|
|Doing laundry||Practice jump shots to load the clothes in laundry.|
|While driving||Flex your biceps and chest muscles at stop lights.|
4. How to implement a plan to increase your NEAT
Most people don’t know where to start with an exercise plan or they don’t like exercise so they put it off. This is especially true if they have not exercised for a long period of time. The great thing about NEAT is you can squeeze it into small amounts of time that each of us have.
First you need to plan out how to increase your NEAT. You could take examples from the table above and think about how you could incorporate a few of them into your routine. Take these ideas and turn them into habits.
Power of habits
Good habits can transform our lives just as bad habits can harm them. The plan then should be to try and build good habits and eliminate bad ones. Those who master this art become more successful at obtaining the things they desire than those who do not. Learn to trust yourself that you have a body that can do wonderful things your mind didn’t think you could do.
The key to being successful in habit building comes down to these principles:
Creating good habit
- Make it obvious
- Turn it into something attractive
- Make it easy
- Ensure it is satisfying
Breaking a bad habit
- Make it invisible
- Turn it into something unattractive
- Make it hard to do
- Ensure it is unsatisfying
Exercise that comes through NEAT can help us change the way we think about ourselves. The voices in our head tell us we are not good enough, too old, not attractive or overweight. You can counter a voice like that by having a direct experience of moving your body that gives you positive feedback.
Building bad habits and breaking bad ones gives us that positive feedback!
Habit change can be one of the most powerful things we can do to transform our lives. James Clear wrote the book on it called Atomic Habits. It is a must read and it goes perfectly with the concept of NEAT to increase your level of movement using habit change.
5. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis over medication?
Has your doctor advised you to “exercise more”? That happens often in hurried doctor office visits where this vague advise is almost useless. Without specific direction do you know what they want you to do?
If your doctor has given this advice before then you should ask them for a referral. More and more there are physical therapy and fitness coaches that you could be referred to that would work with you step by step to build a better fitness plan.
1. Work with a professional who has a plan.
2. Many times your health insurance may pay for this.
3. If it sounds like real exercise and you want no part of it, then tell them you would like assistance building a NEAT program tailored just for you.
6. Exercise & NEAT can be as powerful as prescription medication
Exercise can be as powerful as prescription drugs for some conditions. In fact, both traditional exercise or a culmination of non-exercise activity thermogenesis activities can be better than medication. The reason is simple, medications have side effects!
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 2 million serious adverse drug reactions and 100,000 deaths occur each year from prescribed medications.
Why put yourself at that risk, when a little NEAT can help you stay away from dangerous medications? Compare that with the proven benefits of movement according to the CDC to lower the risk of death for the following.
|Death from all causes||Heart disease|
|Stroke||Multiple types of cancer|
|Type 2 diabetes||Obesity|
|High blood pressure||Osteoporosis|
In addition to preventing death, movement can improve the quality of life. Studies have shown beneficial effects for:
- Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
- Improved cognition and decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease
- Preventing falls
Cost of medication vs non-exercise activity thermogenesis
Medication is expensive! In addition, the out of pocket costs that health insurers expect patients to pay continues to rise every year. Whenever there is a chance that you could stop taking a medication due to an improvement in health you should take it.
NEAT is free and helps with more aspects of health than any one medication can. Add it up, how much money do you spend on medicine per year? Ask your pharmacist which one of your medications could be stopped by improving your health.
7. The power of music to promote NEAT
Music can help compel us to move. You know it is true, a great beat and lyrics that you know by heart. Maybe you associate a song with a great memory. All of these factors make us more likely to move when a great song comes on.
This is true of people of all ages, even babies. Studies have show that we are have greater endurance and are capable of more when training listening to music. Why not incorporate it into your daily activities and even bobbing your head along to the beat is going to get you more thermogenesis.
In her book The Joy of Movement, Kelly McGonigal goes through numerous points of why movement is good for us, but the section on the power of music is empowering.
What playlist is best for you? Don’t have one try creating one it will be a fun experience to listen to some old songs you have not heard for a while that can bring back great memories.
A feeling of empowerment
Once you incorporate more NEAT movement into your daily habits you will start to notice a sense of empowerment come over you. Every movement providing an intrinsic joy. As you put in effort to get another movement incorporated in your routine it can fill you with happiness and connection.
Not all movements will provide this feeling, that is fine. Find the ones that do and increase the frequency of them. Everyone will need to try out different movements and see what works for you.
8. Benefits of support
Don’t try to go it alone. There are many forms of support that can be used to try and help you incorporate more non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Some examples include:
- A close friend
- Groups online or social networks
- Fitness trackers
Having a friend, relative or coworker that can hold you accountable for adding more NEAT activity into your life is a great idea. This person may be in the same boat as you and thus you can be their accountability partner also. Having this form of support can get you through on tough days when you may not feel like sticking with it.
Pets get the same endorphins released in them when they walk or explore in nature. Just the act of playing with your dog for 5 minutes is good for you and Fido!
Today there are social networks online for almost anything. Join them, see the feedback other people give if that is something that motivates you.
Even though non-exercise activity thermogenesis movements are not long walks or runs they can still be detected by fitness trackers. Such devices count steps, track heart rate and may also detect general movement and time spent standing. Even if you don’t plan on trying to get 10,000 steps per day wearing one of these to see how active you are can be enlightening.
Most people do not realize how sedentary they are until they are told how many steps they take per day. Once you know how many steps you take, you don’t have to shoot for 10,000 right away. Any increase in your activity level can be beneficial to your health.
Some examples of these trackers include the Apple watch and the Fitbit. Don’t like to wear a watch? Try using the GMaps pedometer to track your next walk to the grocery store.
9. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis to live longer
The evidence is indisputable the more you move, the longer you will live and the better you will feel. NEAT can add to aerobic workouts and muscle building, both of which the CDC recommend people to do.
Even people with disabilities can benefit from adding some form of NEAT to their lives. Improving balance and coordination can prevent falls that put millions in the hospital each year. Once an injury occurs and pain sets in, the downward spiral of less and less activity winds up killing many who do suffer falls.
Don’t let that happen to you!
Think you hate moving? Are you convinced you do not have endorphins? Not motivated by the idea of living longer because it is a wait and see proposition?
Those are just a few of the things patients have said over the years when talking about increasing the amount of non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Remember, the immediate joy from moving, being outdoors enjoying your time with others does not require you to convince yourself it is good for you.
If you are very sedentary it is going to take you about 6 weeks to really start to enjoy moving again. Trust me this is worth it to avoid the medications and medical procedures you may endure if you don’t start to move.
People who do move more have increased positive emotions, better relationships and are report more meaning in their lives overall. That can be you, all you need to do is change your mindset about who you are. Make your identity that of a person who is active and you will become that person. Use the resources discussed here and before long your sedentary life will a thing of the past.
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Share your story
Have you tried different forms of NEAT? Also, please share what worked for you. Chime in below with your comments and thoughts.