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A NEAT Way to Improve Your Health


We often think that to improve your health through movement you need to sweat it out in the gym. But what if I told this wasn’t necessarily true? What if you can do something much more profound for your health that involves movement and it has nothing to do with exercise, the gym, or feeling the burn? Would this interest you? I suspect it would, because it’s something we can all add into our day and it doesn’t require any special equipment, sweating, or monthly membership. If you’re interested, read on, I have a NEAT concept to explain.


What is NEAT?

NEAT is an acronym that stands for Non-Exercise Activity Time, which is basically all the time you spend moving throughout your day not related to exercise (spoiler alert, that’s most of the movement you do). Think of anything you do that involves movement for non-exercise purposes, that’s NEAT. Cleaning the house, playing with your kids, yard work, taking the stairs, walking in from your car – all NEAT. The number of activities that make up NEAT are nearly limitless, and therein lies its power to improve health, manage weight, and improve mental wellbeing. 


Understanding the Movement Pyramid

When we think of movement for health, we think of exercise (as I said in the introduction), but this is only one very specific form of movement. It sits in something I like to call the Movement Pyramid (see diagram).

At the base of the pyramid is reducing sedentary time, this can be hard because (as we’ll discuss below) our lives can be very sedentary. The next level up is physical activity, and finally the top of the pyramid is formal exercise. 


For clarity sake, let’s provide definitions for each level of the pyramid:


  • Sedentary Time: extended periods of sitting or lying with little to no movement, muscle contract or energy expenditure. For a more comprehensive definition, check out this article from the Sedentary Behavior Research Network. 
  • Physical Activity: any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. Physical activity refers to all movement including during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work. Anything non-exercise related would be considered NEAT. The World Health Organization provides a more in-depth definition here
  • Exercise: a type of physical activity consisting of planned, structured, and repetitive bodily movement done to improve and/or maintain one or more components of physical fitness. Fitness can be both health-related and skill-related. 


Practically, we can think of it like this. If you are more physically active you’ll be less sedentary. If some of your physical activity is planned, structured, and repetitive bodily movement done to improve and/or maintain one or more components of physical fitness, you’re exercising.


You might be wondering why I’m spending so much time on terminology. I’ll explain that more in a second. First we have to understand the purpose of exercise compared with the purpose of physical activity.


Health vs. Fitness

Physical activity, fundamentally, is performed to improve health. Exercise, on the other hand, is performed to improve fitness. While health and fitness are related, they are not the same. Here’s their respective definitions to clarify:


  • Health (as defined by the World Health Organization): a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
  • Fitness:  a set of attributes that people have or achieve that relates to the ability to perform physical activity with vigor.


No doubt these health and fitness are very much intertwined. People who are fit are usually healthy. There are exceptions (like athletes who push their bodies to the extreme), but most fit equals healthy.

The reverse is not always true, health doesn’t always equate to fitness. The best example of this are residents of Blue Zones. In Blue Zones (such as Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece, etc.) people live to exceedingly old age, in great health, and there isn’t a gym in sight. These people walk a lot for transportation, farm, and are very physically active. They don’t exercise, yet they are some of the healthiest people on the planet. Granted there are other aspects of Blue Zones that contribute to their health and longevity, but movement is a significant pillar (while exercise is not).


None of this is to say exercise is a bad thing, or shouldn’t be performed. I’m a clinically trained exercise physiologist and I can happily tell you all the benefits of exercise. I think you absolutely should try to do it. The objective reality is although I (and we) know how beneficial exercise is, we don’t do it. Heck we don’t even do enough physical activity, or put another way we’re exceedingly sedentary. Part of the solution to the problem is shifting our perspective on what matters and where to start (particularly if we’re not moving enough).


A NEAT Place to Start

When you look at the guidelines for physical activity recommended by the CDC, you’ll find they recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous intensity (aerobic) physical activity and two days per week of muscle strengthening. If that sounds like a lot to you, you’re not alone. Less than 25% of Americans meet both the aerobic and muscle strengthening guidelines. Only about 50% of Americans meet the aerobic guideline. It is pretty clear that although we know that exercise and physical activity are very beneficial, an exceedingly large group of people don’t do it.


A lot of research has gone into how we get people to be more physically active. Several researchers have hypothesized different interventions to increase physical activity over the decades. While well-intentioned and very smart, these researchers have found it difficult to make significant inroads into increasing physical activity levels. In fact, as technology advances we become more and more sedentary. 


You might think the fitness industry has also tried to address this, but as I said in this article, the fitness industry has failed the majority of Americans. This is objectively true as only about 20% of Americans belong to health/fitness clubs. So there, too, it’s clear exercise in clubs is not necessarily the answer.


Why might all of this be true? We know movement is good for us. We have dedicated groups of researchers, public health, and medical experts trying to come up with new and innovative ways to convince us to move more. We have an entire industry that makes its money helping people move more. All of this is true, and yet our general trajectory is that we’re moving less, not more, as a society. 


If you look into the research around why people don’t move (or exercise) more, you’ll hear a lot of things. One of the biggest barriers you’ll hear is time. People simply don’t have time to move for 150 minutes per week, or go to the gym to lift 2 days per week. Now you might say, “it’s important, people should make that time.” While it’s true that is important, the reality of our life is that urgent trumps the important nearly all of the time. 


Going for a walk is important, meeting that deadline at work is urgent. Hitting the gym is important, picking my kids up from school is urgent. You get the idea – life gets in the way. What if we could embed movement into our lives that doesn’t require a significant change to our lifestyles? That doesn’t require 30+ minute walks, or hour sessions in the gym? 


This is where NEAT comes in. You can do it intermittently throughout the day, in as short as 1 to 2 minutes bouts of movement (I like to call these movement snacks). Now, if you’re looking to improve your fitness (see definition above) doing 8-10 short bouts of low-to-moderate intensity activity during your day won’t make much of a difference. However, if you’re minimally active (or inactive) the best first step to take to build a habit of movement into your lifestyle is NEAT, and don’t kid yourself, there are significant health benefits to NEAT.


NEAT Health Benefits

On an evolutionary level, we were designed to move. Our body’s are rewarded for moving and punished for not moving from a health perspective. Sedentary lifestyles have been linked to the following health conditions:


  • Obesity
  • Heart diseases, including coronary artery disease and heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Certain cancers, including colon, breast, and uterine cancers
  • Osteoporosis and falls
  • Increased feelings of depression and anxiety


Conversely, NEAT has been linked to


  • Improved Metabolic Rate
  • Enhanced Mood
  • Better Blood Sugar Control
  • Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
  • Improved Circulation and Digestion
  • Increased Energy Levels
  • Better Sleep Quality
  • Improved Joint Health
  • Enhanced Cognitive Function


To be clear here, when we’re talking about NEAT (as I’ve said above), we’re talking about short periods of activity to break up your inactivity. This could be getting up from your desk every hour and stretching for 1-2 minutes. It could be taking a walk around your office building once or twice a day. It could even be parking a little further away from the door at the grocery store and walking an extra minute or two. Although all of these seem to be insignificant, in isolation, when you add them up the research shows they can have profound effects on your health. Beyond that, since you’re building them into your day they won’t require much (in some cases any) additional time. 


Tips for Increasing NEAT

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that a little bit of movement goes a long way to improving your health and wellbeing. I even hope you consider that notion NEAT 🙂 


Now we have to go to the last step and fit into your life. Below are five tips for increasing your NEAT:


Tip #1: Set a timer every hour to remind you to move. I know this might seem distracting, but the research shows that moving every 60 minutes for even a couple of minutes confers significant physical and mental health benefits. This is particularly true on a cognitive level. So if you think you’re going to be less productive during your workday because you’re moving for a couple of minutes every hour, the research suggests the opposite, you’ll actually be more productive, focused, and cognitively sharp.


Tip #2: Always take the stairs. This is, of course, if you’re physically able to. Stair climbing is some of the best “vigorous” NEAT we can perform. Now I realize we have to be realistic here, you’re probably not going to climb 10-15 flights of stairs. However, less than 7-8 could be doable in less than 3 minutes. If you’re capable of taking the stairs, you’ve built some great NEAT into your day.


Tip #3: Park a little further away. At this point, you probably see a theme here, we’re simply building this in your day. Many of us drive from point A to point B being very sedentary the entire time. What better way to to increase your NEAT than parking at the back of the parking lot instead of the front. Not only can this add 1-2 extra minutes of walking into, and out of, the store, it will also increase your activity right after, and before, you’ll be back in the car sitting while driving. 


Tip #4: Remember all movement counts. This tip (and the next) are more psychological than physical. The great thing about NEAT is that all movement counts, even if it’s 1 minute of movement 10 times a day, that equals the same 10 minutes of movement that being for 10 minutes once a day equates to. When we’re talking about the health benefits of movement, cumulative movement is what matters, not consecutive. Hopefully this makes the idea of moving more manageable. 


Tip #5: Going from minimal NEAT to a little more NEAT confers the greatest health benefits. I mentioned the whole 150 minutes of activity earlier in the article. While that’s the guideline, there’s nothing magic about going from 149 to 150 minutes. In fact, the biggest health benefits accrue when going from little (or no) movement, to some movement. Put in the context of the 150 minute recommendation, the difference between going from 5 minutes of physical activity/NEAT per week to 20 minutes is infinitely greater than going from 100 minutes to 150 minutes per week. Keeping that in mind, starting with small increases in NEAT will confer significant health benefits, so just start moving more


Take Home Message

On a minute-by-minute basis, movement is the most powerful thing you can do for your health. Think about it, if you only ate healthy for 150 minutes per week, or slept well for 150 minutes per week you wouldn’t be considerably healthier. Movement on the other hand confers its benefits in much smaller doses (like 150 minutes or less per week).

The concept of NEAT is a simple way to think about moving more and improving your health through movement. Would I love you to exercise –  when you do make that decision a nationally certified Applied Fitness Solutions fitness coach can help. Until then, I hope you’ve found this article and concept…NEAT!

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