Now that the AMA has officially designated obesity a disease, there will be more and more talk about how to prevent and treat it. Not that there is a lack of information about how to lose and control body weight, but having a “disease” may make people consider their own weight issues a little more carefully. Weight loss isn’t that hard to understand. Eat less, move more. However, people seem to get a little fuzzy about how to implement a plan. If that sounds like you, read on.
You’ve tried everything to lose that extra weight. You track your calories and exercise 3 to 4 times a week. But the weight stubbornly hangs on. If this is you, the problem may not be what you are doing but what you are not doing.
Experts disagree on how much of the weight loss equation is diet and how much is exercise, but they all agree that a combination is best. While the nutrient balance debate rages on, meanwhile, you are still wondering why you can’t lose weight. Barring medical issues, the problem may be a NEAT problem. By NEAT, I don’t mean groovy or cool. NEAT is an acronym for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.
Before I explain what NEAT is, let me backtrack a bit. Humans, as everyone knows, burn calories during exercise, which is why an exercise program is usually recommended for weight loss. We use calories during exercise, and depending on the type, duration, and intensity, we burn some calories after as well. We also burn calories digesting the food we eat. Modern humans are periodic eaters, but we metabolize our food for several hours after eating. This metabolism uses calories or energy. In fact, some calorie expenditure happens all the time. This base level of energy need is our resting metabolic rate and is required for healthy functioning of the body and brain.
However, during all the other hours of the day that we are not exercising, sleeping or digesting, we have a choice (limited perhaps, but usually possible) on how many calories we burn. For example, Jack may drive to the office, sit in front of a computer, drive home, surf the internet, watch tv, eat dinner, work a puzzle with the kids, go to bed and start over again tomorrow. Jill, meanwhile, may ride her bike to work, have a walking meeting with a client, participate in a corporate fitness lunch-bunch break, ride her bike home, play soccer with the kids, take a walk after dinner and fold laundry before going to bed. Guess who burns more calories? Obviously, Jill will burn more calories even without a scheduled exercise session.
So Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is defined as the calories you burn doing activity that doesn’t include sleeping, digesting your food, or purposeful exercise. It’s all the other stuff you do. Some people are natural fidgeters who can’t sit still. Maintaining a healthy weight is probably easier for them than someone who enters a room, finds a seat and settles in as quickly as possible. This concept is being studied by Dr. James Levine from the Mayo Clinic. Since beginning his research on NEAT, he has installed a treadmill with a desk for himself and promotes the use of inexpensive exercise equipment for others to use at his office.
Although NEAT is not a replacement for a structured cardio and resistance training program, it has been shown to increase daily energy usage by hundreds of calories. So how can you begin living this wonderful calorie burning lifestyle? It’s easy if you make a lot of little changes.
Some examples are to park further away from the store, take the stairs, stand instead of sitting, walk instead of standing. If you are fortunate enough to have a treadmill or other exercise equipment, consider putting it in front of the tv. Some models have arms that you can rest a board over to hold your laptop or a book. You don’t have to walk fast, but even at 1 or 1½ mph, you can walk several miles each evening and not break a sweat or really even notice it. Studies have shown that wearing a pedometer can help get more steps into your day.
Take up an active hobby such as gardening, ballroom dancing, rock climbing, or make a point of going up and down the stairs twice for each trip. There are all kinds of non-exercise activities to do; you are only limited by your imagination. The key is to keep moving. Try a couple of these to start and do some research on the internet. You may find being a little more active is fun, feels good, and the weight loss you were looking for in the first place may become just a little easier.
Fruhbeck, Gema. Does a NEAT difference in energy expenditure lead to obesity? The Lancet. August 20, 2005. [Cited: May 24, 2011.]
Levine M.D., James A. 2004, Nutrition Reviews, pp. S82-S97
Janiszewski, Ph.D., Peter. Home/office based mini-exercise routines: an update. Obesity Panacea. [Online] January 21, 2011. [Cited: 24 2011, May.] http://blogs.plos.org/obesitypanacea/2011/01/21/homeoffice-based-mini-exercise-routines-an-update/