June 7, 2021


Minute read

That Run or Yoga Class Isn’t Saving You From the Risks of Too Much Butt-in-Chair Time, But This NEAT Trick Will

Your morning run or your afternoon yoga session isn’t enough to save you from a sedentary lifestyle.


You shouldn’t be. Studies have found that the negative impacts of being sedentary occur when you consistently spend as few as 8 hours doing activities involving low energy such as sitting, driving, reading, and watching TV.

In today’s digital, knowledge-centric, Zoom-powered world, that lifestyle is becoming the norm. And the pandemic just made the situation worse!

So even if you diligently get up early and take that run or make sure you get in that evening trip to the gym, you still run the significant risks of living the sedentary lifestyle.

In fact, being sedentary contributes to one in TEN premature deaths in the United States. Sedentariness increases the risk of heart diseases, chronic inflammation, and diabetes. It’s even been shown to increase heart disease at a level comparable to smoking, and has been linked to insulin resistance and heightened triglyceride levels.

The worst news is that it is becoming endemic as some studies suggest that as much 80% of adults are insufficiently active.

A NEAT Answer to a Complex Problem 

Ok, so there’s a pretty good chance that you MAY be guilty of spending too many hours working away in your chair, watching TV, driving or otherwise being sedentary. So, now what?

The answer, thankfully, is actually fairly simple.

Endocrinologist James Levine, at the time director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Mayo Clinic, developed the concept of NEAT, which is an acronym for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. In short, it’s all the physical activity you do outside of your exercise routines.

Levine found that all of the non-exercise physical activities that you might do in a typical day can end up being equivalent to taking a three mile run or doing a HIIT workout — provided that you are active and not spending your entire existence chained to a desk or couch. This discovery is actually really good news because it means that the key to our health is about movement rather than exercise. 

Levine even created an easy way to measure our non-exercise daily activity — effectively, a measure of our non-sedentariness. He called it a NEAT score. Neat, huh?

What’s less neat is that in the past 200 years — a rather short time in the grand scheme of things — our poor human bodies have been transformed. They were made for walking, climbing, moving, and running, but over time, we have stuck them into chairs and desks, and turned them into rounding, shriveling and sedentary bodies, bereft of movement. Unsurprisingly, our average NEAT scores have plummeted.

Levine believes it is this decrease in NEAT scores that has led to our societal obesity challenges and, most importantly, has resulted in widespread damage to our overall health and brain function as a human race. 

Person checking their Apple Watch after 5pm

Breaking Free from the Time Dilemma 

So, the good news is that there’s a simple way to improve your health across a wide range of dimensions: move more. But there’s an equally simple reason that MOST people give for not moving enough including, I suspect, you: I don’t have enough time.

Everything takes time, I get it. It’s easy to justify that there’s simply not enough time to squeeze in more movement.

But here’s the juicy secret. You just need to change the way you think about it.

The biggest reason that most of us feel we don’t have enough time to move is because we have bound the concept of movement to the activity of exercise.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Exercise is also important. Aerobic movement that gets your heart pumping is great for your lungs, heart, brain, and lymphatic systems and can provide substantial benefits in its own right. 

But getting the benefits of breaking the sedentary lifestyle and improving your NEAT score doesn’t demand traditional exercise as you’ve thought of it.

The salient point is not to increase your running mileage, but rather to create a lifestyle in which regular movement is an essential and integrated part of it. 

Okay, I can feel you getting panicky. Take a breath (which is also great for you!). I’m not suggesting that you schedule a set of thirty push-ups every thirty minutes (although what a fun way to break up desk time!). 

Todd Manini, a researcher at the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida conducted a study on chores and found that making your bed takes the same amount of energy as walking. In fact, movement opportunities are all around us. If you are taking a phone call, take it while walking. If you have ten minutes, you can take the stairs a few times. You can even take a few minutes to clean up your space and perhaps turn up some of your favorite music and dance around the room while you’re doing it!

Now I get that at first it may feel a bit contrived — foolish, even. But the fact is that figuring out how to introduce this consistent movement-orientation into your otherwise sedentary lifestyle may be one of the most important things you can do for your health and wellbeing.

Putting NEAT to Work 

If I’ve convinced you that you need to integrate a bit more movement into your daily existence, then you’re probably wondering how to do it. I’m here to help!

Here are some simple steps (Buh-dum-tsch. Sorry, I couldn’t help it!) you can use to get started!

1. Try Standing at Work. The simple act of standing while you work can dramatically improve your score and your caloric expenditure. You can use a standing desk if you have access to one or want to make the investment. But you can just as easily make one for yourself if you don’t want to spend the extra cash.

2. Count Those Steps. I know it’s almost become trite thanks to Fitbits and Apple Watches, but here’s the thing: those steps really do matter. The magic number might be off, but something in the realm of 10,000 at least guarantees 5 miles of walking movement a day, which everyone from Apple to the US Department for Health agrees upon as beneficial.

3. If You Care About Weight Loss. Your sedentary habit is killing your chances of losing weight. No, seriously. Lipoprotein lipase (LPL) is the enzyme that helps to convert fat into energy. You can keto all you want, but if you’re stagnant, you’ll dramatically reduce LPL levels and, in turn, your body’s ability to use fat!

4.Clean for Your Health! Doing things like making your bed, doing dishes, scrubbing your toilet, and just cleaning up almost anything add up! These things make all the difference, and you’ll be happy you have a clean house as a result!

5. Walk, Walk, and Walk Some More. If you can, leave your car at home. Take the opportunity to walk or ride a bike to work. It will not just up your step count, it will be far less stressful than sitting in traffic. If you can’t get to work by foot or pedal, try making the effort to park further away at work, the grocery store, and anywhere with a parking lot! And, when you can, run errands by well, running (or at least walking)!

6. Schedule It. As you get started, it may even be helpful to schedule your new movement into your calendar. It might feel silly to put in ten or fifteen minute blocks of walking or to note a walking call, but it will make all the difference because you won’t need to think about it when the time comes to make the decision!

As you can imagine, these are just elementary steps to getting your activity up a notch — we can (and will) go much deeper into the process of thermogenesis, fat oxidation, and fat mobilization. If you’re interested in learning more, stay tuned for an upcoming article! But the important message is that movement no longer needs to be a chore or punishment! Rather, this is your challenge and opportunity to not just improve the health of your brain and organs, but to rediscover the simple pleasure of moving your body!

Image credits: Luke Chesser

About the Author: Laura Araujo

Passionate about accessible education and evidence-based wellness, Laura founded The MAPS Institute, an educational wellness editorial and platform. Aside from her passion for research and educating, Laura is a classically trained vocalist, sound therapist, and a practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga and Restorative Yoga. She is the creator of the MAPS (Mindfulness, Activation, Purpose, and Surrender) philosophy and is in continual pursuit of helping her students and herself find balance amid the chaos around and within them. When not sifting through Nature Magazine, complaining about their paywalls, she enjoys trying new wine varietals, experimenting in the kitchen, riding her bicycle (sometimes cross-country), and spending time with her husband Charlie, cockapoo Miles, and expected baby girl, Ella.  Click here to follow the MAPS Institute on social media.



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