If anyone asked if I get enough exercise, my answer would be unequivocal: Yes, I make a point of carving out time to sweat, get my heart pumping and move around.
I probably would not mention that I prefer to drive the half mile to pick up my coffee instead of taking a 15-minute walk. Or that using the drive thru sounds infinitely more appealing than actually getting out of my car. Or that you’d rarely spot me choosing to trudge up the stairs at the end of the day.
None of these shortcuts on their own feel like that a big deal. After all, I worked out today, right? But added up these are slowly sapping a sometimes overlooked source of metabolic health.
It’s a concept that goes by the name non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, for short.
This is essentially all the calories that a person burns through their daily activity excluding purposeful physical exercise. Think of the low-effort movements that you string together over the course of your day – things like household chores, strolling through the grocery aisle, climbing the stairs, bobbing your leg up and down at your desk, or cooking dinner.
“The fact there’s so many things in part explains why it’s so difficult to study, because how on earth do you measure everything?” says Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist who pioneered research on NEAT while at the Mayo Clinic and now heads the nonprofit Foundation Ipsen.
But researchers have made progress understanding how NEAT works – and how we can tap into its benefits. They’ve learned that even small behavior changes can amplify or diminish how much NEAT you get, and this can shape your health in powerful ways.
They’ve also found that people of the same size can have dramatically different levels of NEAT, based on factors like their job and where they live, as well as their biological drive to get up and move around.
What’s clear is that many of us who live screen-based lives have the capacity to inject more NEAT into our daily rhythms, not necessarily through seismic changes in our lifestyle, but small-scale ones that mostly just require a shift in mindset.
Here’s what to know about how NEAT works and how to get more of it.
NEAT fills in the slack in your energy expenditure
Much of our daily energy expenditure is relatively fixed. More than half of those calories go toward supporting basic bodily functions, what’s known as our basal metabolic rate.
“That’s for the most part not modifiable,” explains Seth Creasy, an exercise physiologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “There are some things that can maybe change your basal metabolic rate, but not drastically.”
Digesting and metabolizing food takes up another sliver of our daily energy, roughly about 10%, and likewise cannot be changed significantly.
“That leaves the remaining 30% to 40% for all your activity,” says Colleen Novak, a neuroscientist whose lab studies NEAT at Kent State University.
That’s where NEAT comes in – moving around as you go about your day can chip away at that remaining slice of the energy pie.
And even among those who do exercise regularly, NEAT usually plays a bigger role in calorie burning than working out.
It’s not that NEAT should be considered a substitute for more structured bouts of intense physical exercise, which has its own well-established health benefits. But revving up NEAT can be more accessible for some people, especially those who don’t exercise as much, if at all.
“Sometimes it’s hard to carve out 30 to 60 minutes of your day to do an exercise routine,” says Creasy. “These little behaviors can accumulate and end up comprising a lot of energy expenditure.”
Common daily activities can increase your NEAT by surprising amounts
Long before the advent of the Apple Watch, Levine began picking apart the energetic costs of daily activities, performing tightly controlled experiments involving body sensors and other technology to understand the implications for metabolic health.
He explains that sitting up as you would at the computer only burns about 5% to 7% more calories than if you were lying down at rest. Fidgeting excessively while seated can bring that up a few percentage points.
“If I then start to move around, let’s say ironing or folding up clothes, I can move that to 15%,” he says. “But it all changes the moment I start to walk.”
Just strolling about one and a half to two miles an hour — the speed people tend to go while shopping — can double your metabolic rate.
All of this starts to give a sense of how seemingly trivial movements, like walking to the corner store, or mowing the lawn, can add up to make a big difference over the course of the day. Even chewing gum can go a surprisingly long way (about 20 calories an hour above your resting metabolic rate, according to Levine’s calculations.)
He offers the all-too-familiar example of coming home from work, sitting down and watching TV for the rest of the night. If that’s your entire evening, your NEAT could end up at just 30 calories. Taking up household projects that force you to move around when you get home could alternatively bring up your NEAT by 700 calories or more in the same time frame.
It’s a simple idea at its core: Inject mobility — ideally whatever gets you walking around — into what would otherwise default into sitting time.
An internal Apple Watch: Biology may affect our drive toward NEAT
Evidence suggests that some people have a better ability to sense when they take in extra calories and this may set in motion an unconscious drive to move more.
In the 1990s, Levine and his colleagues carried out a now widely cited study examining what happened to 16 lean people who were fed an extra 1,000 calories a day for two months. The found weight gain varied considerably and that levels of NEAT directly predicted how well someone was able to avoid putting on fat.
“People who have the capacity to burn off extra calories and remain thin are people who can switch on their NEAT,” Levine says.
Laura Gao for NPR
The idea that NEAT is naturally dialed up or down in response to how much energy you are taking in hasn’t always been replicated in subsequent research, says Cathy Kotz, an integrative biologist and physiologist who studies obesity at the University of Minnesota.
“It’s just been a little bit hard to study that compensatory action,” she notes, “I would say the jury is still out.”
However, evidence from the lab supports the idea that our biology plays a role in NEAT. Kotz is researching a compound in the brain, called orexin, that appears to have a key role in regulating NEAT.
She was studying how it influenced feeding behavior in animals when she noticed that it also was having another effect.
“Through a lot of experiments, we discovered that when we either give the animals more orexin, or we stimulate their orexin neurons in the brain, it causes them to move more,” she says.
This may help explain why certain animals in the same setting with the same food, end up gaining weight, while others don’t.
In the context of NEAT, Kotz describes the role of orexin as “similar to what our Apple Watch is trying to do – every now and again reminding us, ‘hey, you should stand up, you should move around.'”
“Orexin seems to do this naturally,” she says.
These kinds of experiments haven’t yet been done yet in humans, but the hope, Kotz says, is that a medication could leverage orexin so that it’s easier for people to be active. However, that doesn’t mean people who have lower orexin “signaling or tone” are destined to be sedentary.
“I think it can be overcome just by being conscious and aware of the fact that you do need to move more,” she says.
Novak says increasing NEAT is an “untapped resource” for managing weight, but that it’s not effective on its own — that is, absent changes in diet.
Keeping your NEAT levels up has long-term health benefits
It’s not all about weight. Being sedentary is associated with a range of health problems independent of obesity, from cardiovascular disease to joint problems to mental health issues.
Keeping yourself moving is all the more important as we age, says Todd Manini, an epidemiologist who researches physical activity and aging at the University of Florida.
In one study, Manini tracked how much energy about 300 older adults expended from physical activity, including exercise, over about two weeks.
This snapshot of their daily energy expenditure helped predict the risk of being alive or dead about seven to 10 years later. For every 287 calories a person burned per day, there was about a 30% lower chance of dying.
“We immediately thought that the people in this higher group would be the all-stars of exercising,” says Manini, “But that wasn’t the case at all.”
It turned out those who were less likely to die didn’t exercise more than others, it seemed to be the NEAT in their lives. “They were more likely to have stairs where they live and were more likely to volunteer,” he says.
“Those things we don’t equate to exercise, but it is movement,” he says.
Skip the shortcuts and increase your NEAT
The solutions for maximizing NEAT aren’t necessarily sexy (although that, too, can burn quite a few calories), but many of them are relatively easy to take up. They often involve choosing to make slightly more effort, rather than choosing convenience.
Unfortunately, our natural impulses to move can be in direct conflict with the environment around us. Many people sit at screens to do their work, their personal errands like banking and shopping, and for their leisure time.
For those with office jobs, work exerts an especially powerful influence over our NEAT. “If your brain is sharing signals to move and you have a job that ties you to the chair, it’s unnatural and you don’t move,” says Levine.
NEAT varies greatly across societies and occupations. Research shows there can be as much as a 2,000-calorie difference between people of the same body size, depending on how physically active their occupation is.
“People who are living in agricultural communities are literally moving three times more than even lean or overweight people in North America, just in the environments in which they live,” he says.
Novak likes to use the example of her own grandparents when describing the two ends of the NEAT spectrum.
“One lived on a farm and was constantly out doing things, digging out weeds. You just couldn’t have them sit down,” she says. “The other grandparent just preferred to chill and talk to us.”
Estimates show that someone who has to sit down for work might burn 700 calories per day through NEAT; a job that involves standing all day would be twice that.
Since jobs take up so much time, it’s a smart place to try to increase NEAT.
Try standing desks, walking during meetings, or if you work from home, try breaking up the work day with household chores.
Levine’s personal NEAT trick: Instead of hunting for the closest parking spot, he finds one farther away and walks 20 minutes.
“Then I walk back at the end of the day and take my car and go home,” he says. “That’s a 40 minute walk, 100 calories for free!”
Outside of work, mundane tasks like vacuuming, doing the laundry or gardening can burn a few hundred calories in an hour. Playing a video game can go from about 50 calories an hour to more than 100 if you move around. Taking the stairs can more than triple the amount of energy you’d use when riding the elevator. Even watching TV can be transformed if you walk around during commercials.
“I was surprised that making your bed actually expends more calories than other activities that you might think of, like taking a slow walk,” says Manini.
Worth noting: Manini says the calorie estimates in popular wearable devices can measure walking pretty well, but they aren’t all that accurate at gauging other lifestyle activities.
Ultimately, the key is to root out the shortcuts that hamper our natural impulses to move.
“The power of NEAT is that it’s available to absolutely everybody,” Levine says. “We can all do it and we can all do a little bit more.”
This story was edited for broadcast by Jane Greenhalgh and for web by Carmel Wroth. Illustrations by Laura Gao. Art production by Pierre Kattar.