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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Improve Your Health — Without Hitting the Gym

Going to the gym for an hour can’t compensate for sitting the rest of the day. What you do (or don’t do) throughout your waking time has a big impact on health.

We’ve been led to believe that if we hit the gym a few days a week, we can rest assured we’re doing okay on the exercise front. Not so, according to new research. The low-effort movements that you do throughout the day (think shopping for groceries, taking the stairs, tapping a foot to music, etc.) provide big benefits. 

These activities burn calories, a concept known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT. Every physical activity outside of eating, sleeping, or sports-like exercise counts. 

The body burns calories in three major ways:
  • Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is how much energy you expend in a comfortable temperature after fasting 12 hours. In non-athletes, it accounts for 60 to 70% of energy expenditure. It’s how much your body needs to circulate blood, breathe, and maintain other vital functions.
  • Diet-induced thermogenesis is the energy needed to digest, absorb, and store food in the body. It makes up 10-12% of the energy expended in a non-athlete.
  • Physical activity is everything your body does to move, maintain posture, and contract muscles. It accounts for 6 to 10% of energy expenditure and can be further broken down into deliberate exercise and NEAT.

How to Add NEAT to Your Routine

  • Take the stairs
  • Park farther away than you need to
  • Walk or cycle to your destination
  • Do household chores
  • Do yard work
  • Stand up more than you sit
  • Take walking breaks
  • Dance to a video
  • Stand up and sit down 10 times

Don’t be fooled into thinking that such a small fraction of energy use must have a correspondingly small impact on your well-being. People in Blue Zones, where longevity is at its peak, have been found to do a lot of NEAT activity and almost no gym exercise or sports. In fact, NEAT has been linked most strongly with longevity and body weight management. There is a strong link between the overall time spent sitting down and the risk of dying early.

“Metabolic syndrome, poor blood sugar management, and type 2 diabetes are all related to large amounts of seated time, independent of how much someone exercises,” says Kelsey Graham, a professor in the Exercise Science Department of San Diego Mesa College and owner/founder of KBG Wellness.

The average adult spends nine to 10 hours per day seated, according to the National Institutes of Health. Alarmingly, scientists have found higher levels of triglycerides, blood sugar, and C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation, in the blood of people who are very sedentary. 

“It's those heart health markers that are really concerning for people who are studying this,” says Sabrena Jo, director of science and research content for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). It doesn’t take long for the damage to start. After merely a single day of inactivity, HDL or good cholesterol begins to dip.

But don’t your gym visits counteract these effects? “Thirty- or 60-minute workouts can't make up for the long unbroken periods of sedentary activities in terms of cardiometabolic health,” says Jo, while acknowledging that it will be “quite a mental shift" for Americans to accept that sweating it out for an hour isn’t enough. 

“Regular light movement is just as important for health as regimented exercise,” says Kelsey Graham, a professor in the Exercise Science Department of San Diego Mesa College and owner/founder of KBG Wellness.

NEAT Burns Calories

Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist who pioneered research on NEAT while at the Mayo Clinic and now heads the nonprofit Foundation Ipsen, has been studying how NEAT movement affects our energy use, or how many calories we burn. 

Levine notes that sitting at a computer uses 5 to 7% more calories than lying down, but if he gets up to fold and iron clothes, that number goes up to 15%. “It all changes the moment I start to walk,” he says. Casually walking at the speed you might take while shopping can double your metabolic rate. Even chewing gum will burn about 20 calories an hour. 

While there are no guidelines yet on how much NEAT exercise is optimal, experts suggest standing or walking every 30 minutes for five minutes or more will bring positive benefits. You don’t have to do jumping jacks (although that will work); more modest exercise, like going to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, will do.