Staying NEAT: support your fitness goals without doing much at all

Right now, as you read this, you’re burning calories. From breathing to thinking to the subtle movements of your eyes across the screen — everything your body does takes energy. Of course, it’s not much. An hour of reading or watching something on a screen burns fewer than 50 calories. But it does add up. And at a time when most of us are more sedentary than ever, every little bit counts.

I’ve talked before about finding the right combination of approaches to lose weight or treat obesity, and I’d like to add something else to the mix: doing nothing. Or close to nothing. “Nonexercise activity thermogenesis,” or NEAT, refers to the body’s continuous expenditure of energy. Think of it like the gas used when your car is idling. Scientists are increasingly aware of the value of NEAT in weight loss, not as a standalone focus but rather as a way to extend your regimen into downtime.

The idea is simple: try to find opportunities to add movement to otherwise sedentary activities in order to increase NEAT. The differences can be surprising. Here are just a few very simple ways to put it to work.

Inconvenience yourself

We take countless shortcuts in our lives. Microwaves, elevators, dishwashers – making things easier is just part of human nature. But there are major benefits to doing things the old-fashioned way. Beyond the obvious advantages of taking the stairs whenever possible, something as simple as baking dinner instead of microwaving it can massively raise the relative caloric expenditure of the activity. Not to mention make for tastier meals. Scientists have shown that choosing to take the slightly more challenging approach to a task can add up to a higher level of NEAT over time.

Start by standing

If you’d like to help burn calories while binge-ing your show du jour, you can. Just stand up. Anything you normally do sitting down can become a tool in your weight loss regimen this way. It’s one of the reasons why standing desks have become so popular in offices. With a slight shift in verticality comes a major jump in NEAT, and seeing how long you can go without sitting down will also make your move to the couch that much more satisfying.

Take a moment to move

If you’ve ever been self-conscious about fidgeting, don’t be. Believe it or not, studies show that tapping fingers and feet can actually add calorie-burning movement to sedentary activities. But don’t stop there. Pacing and stretching take that NEAT even further. While your family may not appreciate you circling the room on movie night, walking around while performing otherwise stationary tasks is one of the most reliable ways to increase thermogenesis. Research indicates that something as simple as stepping in place during TV commercials not only made a significant contribution to daily steps, but also reduced overall TV time among participants of one recent study.

Find NEATer hobbies

You’ve probably picked up on the theme by now: If it involves movement, it burns calories. Playing an instrument, watering the garden, or singing in a choir – these are the kinds of downtime activities with good potential for NEAT. Every note played or flower planted is another micro-step toward your goals.

Nonexercise activity thermogenesis is never a replacement for true exercise. But it is a valuable reminder that every activity has potential to contribute to your fitness priorities. At the end of the day, being mindful and proactive about our bodies can have remarkable benefits over time. It’s about more than just pushing yourself hard for an hour each day, but rather sustained, gradual choices to be just a little more active. And as COVID keeps us indoors for at least a little while longer, there has never been a better time for this kind of mindfulness.