As society becomes more aware of the dangers of added weight and obesity for long term health, people are adopting healthier diets and logging in time at the gym or participating in other forms of exercise. Even so, the battle of the bulge rages on. With the invention of modernized appliances, machines, and equipment to simplify or even take over many day to day activities, people are becoming more sedentary than ever. Dishwashers, riding lawnmowers, snowblowers, television remote controls, and cars all equal less physical activity, leading to increased incidences of obesity.
The majority of the focus for weight loss has been on aerobic exercise and diet, and not much attention has been placed on the activity we do during our day-to-day lives. Research by James Levine, endocrinologist and professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, has found that spontaneous activity such as walking, toe-tapping, playing an instrument, cooking, dancing, shopping, and even fidgeting is crucially important to weight management.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), the spontaneous activity of everyday life, was found to have greater impact on calorie burning than exercise in nearly everyone (the exception being highly trained athletes). Levine found that people who can somehow switch on their NEAT don’t gain fat when they are overfed, while those that don’t switch on their NEAT gain 10 times more fat than the others. It was calculated that people with obesity move, on average, 2.5 hours less than lean people, therefore burning 350 fewer calories per day.
Remember, we are not talking about going to the gym, biking, talking a brisk walk, or jogging. We are talking about activity from our general day to day movements. This includes getting up to get a glass of water, bending to tie a shoe, or watering the plants. The key is the continuity of motion throughout the day that makes the difference.
In order to get a better idea of how this works, let’s think logically for a moment: it is generally accepted that a loss of 1 pound per week translates into 3500 calories that must be burned (equivalent to 500 calories per day if divided equally). If someone is burning 350 fewer calories per day, as in Levine’s research, that equals almost 2500 calories per weeek (7 days x 350 calories per day). Using our 1 pound = 3500 calories estimate, that means almost a whole pound per week that we are essentially sitting on, literally and figuratively.
Now of course, the biology doesn’t truly work out into these mathematical calculations like they work out on paper, but still, the results are striking. What’s the bottom line? Even if you exercise regularly in the mornings or after work, getting up and moving around regularly throughout the day is crucial to achieving and maintaining optimal weight. For those of you who don’t get to the gym, it is even more important for you to get up and move around throughout the day to activate your NEAT.
A simple way to determine how much activity you are getting throughout the day would be to use a pedometer, a small device that you clip onto your hip and measures the number of steps throughout the day. These can be purchased inexpensively from department stores, Canadian Tire, or online. To get started, record the number of steps you take each day for a week and find an average. This will give you a baseline from which you can improve on.
You want to increase gradually to the goal of 10,000 steps. Try to increase your daily steps by 500 per week. For instance, if on week one, you average 3,000 steps, your goal for week two would be 3,500 steps, and 4,000 steps by week 4, and so on. You will be amazed at how easy this becomes, and how quickly the steps add up when you start making minute changes.
I have been monitoring my activity for the past few weeks, and average between 5000-8000 steps daily, depending on my schedule. On days when I am particularly sedentary, doing a lot of administrative work or writing, I may only accomplish about 3000 or so. On those days, wearing my pedometer reminds me to get up and move.
As a general guideline, health care practitioners recommend working up to a goal of 10,000 steps per day. 10,000 steps is roughly equivalent to around 400 calories burned. Increasing your NEAT will help you burn more calories, but also have you feeling more clearheaded and energetic throughout the day, as the blood and oxygen will be flowing through your body. And the best news is – the more you move, the more you will want to move!
Ways to increase your NEAT-ness factor
- Here are some simple ways to get you on your feet, increase your NEAT, and get you feeling great!
- Stand up every chance you get
- Instead of sitting in the coffee shop with a friend to chat, grab that coffee to go and walk together along the street or in the park
- Get up to change the channels on the TV rather than using the remote. Even better, march in place, hop, bounce, sway or wiggle while you are watching
- Look for the furthest parking space, rather than the closest, so that you are getting just that little bit more exercise
- If you work in an office, walk to a colleague’s desk, rather than calling them on the phone
- Take the stairs, rather than the elevator
- When you are carrying groceries, bring the bags in one at a time
- If you are stuck sitting for long periods of time, change position, shift in your seat, reach down and touch your toes, wave your hands overhead, anything to get moving