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N.E.A.T. ways to burn calories

In the struggle to lose weight, people spend their precious time engaging in exercise that they hope will burn as many calories as possible. Whether it's going to the gym and sweating it out on a treadmill, stationary cycle, or in aerobics classes, one would want that time spent to have a slimming effect, right? Yet many people become disappointed when the weight doesn't come off as quickly as hoped despite their efforts.

Research suggests that one reason for this may be because some folks are missing out on another way to burn calories that doesn't even require spending more time formally exercising, something that anyone can incorporate into activities of daily living. Its acronym even sounds cool – N.E.A.T., or "non-exercise activity thermogenesis," which simply means calories burned during daily activity that is not structured exercise.

Why is this significant? Although it is proven that exercise does increase the resting metabolic rate (rate of calories burned literally at rest, such as during sleep or when there is very little bodily movement), the amount of calories burned in exercise is sometimes not enough to offset an individual's calorie intake. Furthermore, other factors, such as not enough exercise intensity, duration and frequency can lessen the effectiveness of an activity program.

In truth, exercise expends relatively few calories in comparison to what we take in. And if care is not taken in measuring portion sizes, food preparation, and food choices, one can easily go over the limit that the body needs to maintain or lose weight.

One activity I enjoy is circuit training, a round of vigorous training for 45 minutes (according to the website, this includes the use of kettlebells and cardio intervals with little rest in between). Luckily for me, I do not stop moving after my exercise session. I walk around campus at my work, go up stairs instead of using the elevator, and stand instead of sitting even when I'm working at my desk (I have a stand-up workstation for my monitor and keyboard). Therefore, I am burning those extra calories through daily non-exercise activity and run little risk of gaining weight. It must work because I have maintained pretty much the same weight and clothing sizes for many, many years, which saves me money since I'm not buying new clothes, but it is also a very gratifying feeling. And yes, I am a fidgeter…more on that below!

In 2005 a crusader against obesity, physician and author conducted a research study to find out how much incidental activity contributes to calorie burning and the effect this has on weight1. Dr. James Levine actually developed "underwear" (more like bike shorts) studded with sensors that could detect and measure every movement made by the wearer. Every calorie consumed by the 20 subjects, half of whom were lean, the other half clinically obese, was carefully controlled. When the calorie intake to maintain each individual's weight was determined, Dr. Levine bumped up their feedings by another 1,000 calories. Although all of these people were restricted from structured exercise (but were allowed to continue in their normal daily activities at work and at home), the obese group gained weight, while the lean subjects didn't. What could be the reason for this? As determined by their special garments, the weight-maintainers simply moved more (or "fidgeted") and sat less. The weight gain the others in the group experienced was not caused by a "fat" gene or a metabolic condition of some sort. It was due to flat-out "oversitting." The fidgeters did up to 67% more movements in a day, while the sedentary sat 61% longer.

Other studies are pointing out that not only does sitting contribute to weight gain but also decreases insulin sensitivity, increasing the risk for diabetes, heart disease and more. In fact, it is also being considered as a disease in and of itself, apart from other factors leading to mortality. This is pretty serious stuff!

So what can you do to increase your N.E.A.T. level if your job requires you to sit, or if you have to commute a long way in a car, etc.? The good news is there are a lot of things you can do, including but not limited to:

  • Ask your employer to install an adjustable standing workstation.

    These don't have to be expensive, and the money your company will save from decreased absenteeism due to back pain will compensate, and the company will benefit from your increased productivity. When you do have to sit, do it on an inflatable "Dynadisc" so that you can move around at the same time! If you can't get either of these, try to get up and stand while taking phone calls, waiting for programs to download, or program standing/walking breaks as "meetings" in your Outlook or other scheduler/appointment reminder. Or, how about scheduling actual meetings with co-workers as "walking meetings"?

  • Re-arrange your office or your home to encourage more movement.

    In your office put the wastebasket or other often-used items on the other side of the room so that you have to get up. Move your desk farther away from the restrooms or water cooler. Walk to your co-worker's office instead of sending an email. At home get rid of the remote control and actually get up to turn the television on or off. Un-convenient-ize your home in as many ways as you can!

    In the New Year a new national health observance will make its debut. The idea is to encourage everyone to choose stairs over taking an elevator or escalator. Start with a few and increase slowly and see your fitness and endurance (and resting metabolic rate) increase! Check with your physician first if you have any existing risk factors. Fitness and health professionals may be able to help you if you have orthopedic concerns, such as back or knee pain. Taking the stairs as a daily habit is a N.E.A.T. way to get healthy!

If you start to think about it, you can surely come up with creative ways to add daily activity (even schools are incorporating more ways for kids to learn while sitting less). Make sure to also fit in the recommended amount of exercise for good health – 30 minutes of near-daily moderate cardiovascular activity (or 150 minutes over a week's time) and resistance training at least twice per week. Remember you should already be doing this, and adding the "fidget" component does not have to take a lot of extra time. Get your family, friends and co-workers involved so you don't have to go it alone (and to spread the joy)! If we all get off our chairs and "fidget" more, we can burn more calories so we can weigh less and enjoy the benefits of preventing disease and enjoying life!