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Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): Can It Replace Your Workout?

a person planting a plant in a pot
a person planting a plant in a pot

These days, it seems like everyone is striving for that "perfect body." You know, the one with chiseled abs and toned limbs? Of course, here at Nutrisense, we believe there’s no one “perfect” body type. You can be healthy at any size, abs or no abs! And when it comes to nutrition, exercise, and wellness activities, there’s no one-size-fits-all.

Metabolic health is about more than fad diets and spot workouts, but some good things come from these health trends. One is that there’s suddenly more focus than ever on something that can help with overall wellbeing: non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). 

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT, is a term used to describe the number of calories you burn through daily physical activity outside of a formal exercise regime. NEAT can account for up to 15 to 30 percent of your daily calorie expenditure. It can increase your metabolic rate, so making every movement count is essential. 

NEAT can’t replace the benefits of intense cardio or strength-training workouts. Still, like any physical activity, it has many overall health and fitness benefits. It can contribute to everything from reducing cholesterol to helping with fat loss. Read on to find out everything you need to know about NEAT and how to make the most of it.

What is NEAT, and Why is it Important?

a person sweeping the floor

When it comes to burning calories and losing weight, most people focus on exercise. But there’s another essential factor to consider: non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). You may not realize it, but your body burns calories, even when not actively exercising. This process, known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), can account for a significant portion of your daily calorie burn and wellness.

Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is found in all mammals and is responsible for producing heat to maintain body temperature. Researchers once believed that only infants and hibernating animals had significant BAT, but recent studies have shown that adults also have small amounts of this tissue. Unlike white adipose tissue, which stores energy as triglycerides, BAT burns calories to generate heat.

NEAT refers to the energy expended during activities not explicitly designed for exercise. While the individual calorie burn from NEAT may seem small, it can add up over time. Studies have shown that increasing NEAT can lead to significant weight loss.

Here’s an interesting fact:

James A. Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, has been studying the effects of inactivity on health for many years. In particular, he has been interested in the role of what he calls "non-exercise activity thermogenesis" (NEAT) in weight control.

Dr. Levine's research has shown that people with high NEAT levels tend to be thinner than those with low NEAT levels. In addition, his research has shown that increasing NEAT can help people lose weight and keep it off.

As a result of his work, Dr. Levine has become one of the world's leading experts on the importance of physical activity in weight loss and preventive health.

Is There an ‘Average’ NEAT?

a person walking a dog

Not really! Let’s take a minute to break down why.

We now know that Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is the total daily energy expenditure expended for all activities that are not sleeping, eating, or exercising. It includes more spontaneous physical activities like walking the dog, playing with your kids, doing yard work, and even fidgeting.

Because NEAT can vary so much from person to person, it’s difficult to say whether there is an ‘average’ level of NEAT for everyone. However, studies have shown that more active people tend to have higher NEAT levels than less active ones.

It makes sense when you think about it—if you’re constantly on the move, you’re going to burn more calories than someone who sits still through most of the day. NEAT is an essential factor in your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), according to the Mayo Clinic.

A Note on Calories and the Thermic Effect of Food

You may be familiar with the concept of calories, but not everyone knows how they relate to daily energy expenditure. So, before we get into the various types of non-exercise physical activities that NEAT includes, let’s take a minute to focus on calories.

Calories are a unit of measurement that quantifies the amount of energy that food provides. Every calorie equals 4.184 kilojoules, and when you consume more calories than you need, your body stores the excess energy as body fat or body mass.

When your body stores too much fat, your body mass index or BMI will rise above healthy levels. To lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit by either eating fewer calories or burning more energy through physical activity. BMI is the most common way to diagnose conditions like obesity. But remember, it is not always the most accurate as it does not consider any increases in muscle mass. 

Another term that may be helpful to know about is the thermic effect of food (TEF). TEF is the energy your body requires to digest, absorb and process the nutrients in food. TEF accounts for a small part of daily energy expenditure and is highly variable depending on the type of food consumed.

There is no ‘average’ for NEAT or TEF, as both vary significantly from person to person based on their activity level and diet. However, increasing both NEAT and TEF can help to boost your metabolism. Since people with higher NEAT levels tend to be more physically active overall, they also typically have better cardiovascular health.  

What Research Says About NEAT

The research on NEAT can help you understand more about how it impacts everything from obesity levels to blood glucose. Here’s a quick rundown of some interesting research on it:

Exercise and NEAT

a person working out at home

NEAT includes any movement that isn't part of structured exercises, like walking to the kitchen or doing chores around the house. While it may not seem like much, NEAT can actually have a significant impact on weight management and may even contribute in some small part to the recommended physical activity guidelines for adults.

Studies have shown that people who are more active throughout the day tend to be leaner than those who are less active. Research has shown that increasing NEAT every day can significantly impact your weight loss goals.

Obesity and NEAT

a couple of people cleaning a room

Obesity is a public health concern in the United States, and its prevalence is only increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one-third of adults in the U.S. are obese. It isn't just a matter of appearance; obesity puts people at risk for several health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a decrease in physical activity has played a large part in continuing the obesity epidemic. One of the contributing factors to preventing obesity is NEAT. People who are obese tend to have lower NEAT levels, meaning they burn fewer calories throughout the day. Just a small increase in NEAT can significantly impact weight loss.

Diet and NEAT

veggies, eggs and a lemon

Diet and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis are two critical factors in weight loss. Diet refers to the food and drinks you consume. At the same time, NEAT is the energy you expend through other daily activities such as walking, talking, vacuuming, and fidgeting. Research has shown that both diet and NEAT play a role in weight loss.

For example, research conducted on obese adults found that those who lost weight through diet and NEAT expended more energy than those who lost weight through diet alone. Dieters who add NEAT to their weight-loss plan are more likely to maintain their weight loss in the long term.

Does NEAT Impact Blood Glucose Levels?

a person checking their glucose level

It has recently been suggested that Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis may impact blood glucose levels. To understand this, it’s first necessary to understand how blood glucose levels are regulated.

Usually, when you eat foods containing carbohydrates, such as bread, rice, or potato, your body breaks them down into individual glucose molecules. These glucose molecules then enter the bloodstream and travel to your cells, where they’re used for energy. Insulin is a hormone that helps to regulate blood glucose levels by transporting glucose into cells. If left unchecked, it can lead to weight gain, health conditions, and a lower basal metabolic rate (BMR).

Although it may not seem like much, NEAT can significantly impact your health, including your blood glucose levels. Studies have shown that people who maintain a high level of NEAT throughout the day have better blood sugar control than those who don't. It’s because NEAT helps to increase metabolism and burn more calories, which not only helps with fat loss, it can also help to stabilize blood sugar levels.

In addition, NEAT can also help reduce insulin resistance, another key factor in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. Recent research has shown that adding NEAT activities into your day can help maintain type 1 diabetes

So it’s safe to say that understanding and spreading the word about NEAT may help public health professionals battle many ongoing health conditions.

NEAT Activities to Include in Your Day

someone making pancakes

So, what activities fall into the category of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis? Almost anything that helps you expend energy: fidgeting, tapping your foot, doing housework, walking around during your workday—even singing!

While these activities may seem insignificant, they can contribute significantly to your daily calorie burn, fat loss, and resting metabolic rate. And as we just learned, research has shown that people who engage in more NEAT activities benefit in many ways. They have lower rates of obesity, better energy balance, and better insulin sensitivity. There’s never been a better reason to get up and get moving!

Some activities you can engage in that are considered NEAT activities: 

  • Instead of taking the elevator, try taking the stairs to get where you’re going. 
  • If you enjoy being outdoors, take up gardening to have an active way to enjoy the outdoors. 
  • Clean your house more often. Tasks like vacuuming and sweeping add up quickly. Maybe break up tasks and do one every day. An added benefit is that your home will be extra clean. 
  • Instead of ordering takeout or buying ready meals, cook your own. It will help you stay active and teach you more about nutrition, your daily food intake, and self-care through dietary choices. 
  • If you have a desk job, find new ways to stay active through your workday. Take phone calls while walking around. Or pour yourself small cups of coffee, so you have to get up and take a little walk when you want another one. 
  • Take any chance to incorporate movement instead of sedentary behavior in your daily life. Consult with a personal trainer, healthcare provider, sports medicine professional, or dietitian for inspiration if you need more ideas!
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Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Reviewed by: Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Amanda is a Nutrition Manager and Registered Dietitian at Nutrisense, with a Masters in Dietetics from Stephen F. Austin State University. Originally from south GA, she got her undergrad degree from Texas Tech University. Before joining Nutrisense, she worked at a hospital in Fort Worth, TX, for 4 years as a dietitian, counseling those living with HIV.

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