A NEAT idea

You have the best of intentions.

After years of sedentary living, you now realize that exercise is really an essential part of healthy living.  Besides that, your wife has been on your case to start getting in shape and reducing the size of your continually growing stomach.  Every Sunday, you reaffirm that this is “the week.”

You’ve already mapped out a course for a 35 minute daily walk, and you even purchased a book about muscle building exercises for beginners.  You are all ready to go!

But on Sunday you have a late morning and there is a family gathering in the early afternoon.  Okay, but Monday is the day you are really going to start…until there is overtime at work. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday don’t fare much better.  But Sunday will come again, and again, and again.

This was exactly Zev’s situation week after week after week.  It wasn’t just his wife that was on his case, but his doctor had implored him to start getting active in order to counter his newly present high blood pressure and his growing girth.

Zev is up early every day.  He is not a time-waster.  He is one of those rare breads who really doesn’t have much time to exercise.  As a matter of fact, after going through his daily schedule, I was shocked that I really couldn’t find significant time for him to exercise. It is extremely rare that I can’t pinpoint times to set aside for formal exercise.  So when plan A continually fails, it is time for plan B.  The emphasis now changes to NEAT or Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis.

The dangers of sitting too much

NEAT encompasses the calories burned while living life—walking to work, typing, folding clothes, washing dishes, running errands and so on. Sleeping, eating, and formal exercise are not included.

Research suggests that prolonged sitting can be as bad for health as smoking (Owen et al. 2010). Sitting “deactivates” the brain and lowers metabolism. Limited physical activity, low levels of mental stimulation, and the absence of socialization (too much time on screens and mobile devices) have a detrimental effect on the human brain over time (Nussbaum 2006). Experts have concluded that brain health should be a priority given the threat of dementia. Data indicate that most people are more reactive than proactive with their health and lifestyle (Nussbaum 2011). The good news is that movement can help, and it doesn’t have to be a marathon.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, chronic diseases are the number-one threat to public health, far surpassing infectious diseases. Eighty-six percent of our healthcare costs go toward chronic diseases (CDC 2017), and prolonged sitting is a significant contributor. When people get up and move, they’re likely to see big benefits:

  • 21%–25% reduction in risk for certain cancers
  • 20%–27% reduction in risk for stroke
  • 27% reduction in risk for diabetes

Consistent exercise and a healthy diet can help to counteract the effects of sitting too much. However, when this becomes difficult or inconsistent, fitting in more activity within what we are doing daily becomes the next best option.

Also good for your brain

The brain also benefits from movement. Simple activities can boost NEAT while building and strengthening the brain. Dr. John Medina refers to physical activity as “cognitive candy.” The two primary foods for the brain are oxygen and glucose. Oxygen reacts with glucose to produce energy for cell function. By moving we increase the flow of oxygenated blood and glucose to the brain. Proper glucose levels are associated with stronger memory and cognitive function. Brain booster activities increase blood flow to the brain, feeding it with glucose and oxygen.

When a person sits for longer than 10 minutes, the brain downshifts, and it becomes more difficult to pay attention (Jensen 2000).  Sitting in an office setting or school environment typically require doing a great deal of work in a seated position, and yet the brain is least productive when sitting (Eckmann 2013).

Looking for solutions

Now that we know all of the wonderful benefits of regular activities to both the body and the brain, the challenge is how to execute the plan.

Zev and I sat together and went through his weekday and weekend schedules.  Where could he fit in activity and what should that activity be?

First, we talked about some standard behaviors that would help.  We decided that he would park his car a block away from his house and his workplace to get more steps in. When he got to his office building, he began using the stairs up to his 4th floor office instead of the elevator.

Then we looked into things he could do while at his desk.  I suggested that each day Zev should do 6 or 7 actions from the following list, every couple of hours.

  • Walk in place for a minute with feet close to the ground or with high knees.
  • Walk with your feet while seated in your chair.
  • Stretch the chest by clasping your hands behind your back and looking up. Inhale while stretching, and exhale on the release.
  • Shift your weight from side to side by swaying the hips.
  • Do jumping jacks, squats, lunges and crunches during your breaks
  • Do pushups and triceps dips at a counter, desk or wall; vary the hand width.
  • Wiggle or tap the toes and fingers while working at your computer or sitting at a desk.
  • Stand up and sit down at least every 10–20 minutes (every 5–10 minutes if possible); this boosts metabolism and strengthen the glutes and quads.
  • Stand up and roll the shoulders up and back, one at a time and together.
  • Take breaks from typing at the keyboard and make circles with both wrists. Open and close your fingers.
  • While sitting in a meeting with your legs beneath your desk, subtly lift one leg at a time. Do this several times; then, as you lift, point your toes to the ground and, as you lower, point the toes up.

While putting activity into our days is very valuable and useful, it doesn’t completely replace the full benefits of moderate intensity or high intensity exercise.  Most of us who are “too busy to exercise” either haven’t examined our daily routine close enough or our perception of time is off.

When clients tell me they didn’t have any problem doing a daily 35 minute walk, but they had no time for 15 pushups, this indicates that their perception of time is warped. I have these clients do 15 pushups and show them on my stop-watch that it took 52 seconds. Then they understand.  Doing 6 or 7 minutes of muscle building exercise, 3 or 4 days a week, is so beneficial! Everyone has 7 minutes out of the 1,440 minutes we have every day.

Creatively working activity into your busy day is essential in keeping your health in order and keeping it NEAT (Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis) will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.” 


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