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Vol. LXII, No. 8
April 16, 2010
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Burn Calories Without Exercise
Why Getting Up from Your Chair Is NEAT

On the front page...

Everyone knows that sitting in your office chair and staring at your computer screen for hours at a time isn’t all that good for you, but many of us do it anyway.

With so many people in office jobs that tether them to technology, it is little wonder that the U.S. has seen such an explosion in obesity rates. Unless you already have a daily regimen that includes time for working out, you may feel there’s no way to get the exercise you need to burn those extra calories.

Continued...


  Dr. James Levine  
  Dr. James Levine  

However, according to a recent lecture at Wilson Hall presented by two visiting researchers, one answer to the exercise question could be rather NEAT, as in non-exercise activity thermogenesis. It’s a fancy way of describing all the other activity you do throughout the day that’s not specifically exercise.

Think mowing the lawn, doing laundry or dragging the recycling bin to the curb. These activities expend calories, and while it may not be a huge amount, it’s better than nothing. Plus, this puttering breaks up the hours of continuous sitting you might otherwise do, which is meaningful in itself. At work, such diversions could be walking to the water fountain, taking the stairs or delivering an envelope to its destination rather than putting it through inter-office mail.

“Most people expend most of their NEAT in low-velocity, short-duration walks,” said Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic. “When you average all the walks we do every day, it’s about 1.1 miles an hour.”

Obviously, we’re not talking about breaking a sweat here, but instead, cultivating a habit of regular movement to combat sedentary lifestyles.

Levine has pioneered innovative stand-up work environments in which employees walk slowly on treadmills while talking on the phone or conduct their meetings while walking together along a track marked in tape on the floor. His office at the Mayo Clinic is structured this way, and often first-time visitors have to be told that they’ve reached the right place. It looks more like a gym than your average office.

Dr. Neville Owen of the University of Queensland in Australia studies the consequences
of sedentary behavior. His research paints an unflattering
picture of what modern cultures face.
Dr. Neville Owen of the University of Queensland in Australia studies the consequences of sedentary behavior. His research paints an unflattering picture of what modern cultures face.

But aside from its revolutionary look, it’s shown to be wildly effective in increasing productivity, helping employees either maintain or lose weight and engendering a positive attitude among the workforce. It also has other welcome advantages.

“Meetings have become about 20 minutes shorter,” Levine said.

Dr. Neville Owen of the University of Queensland in Australia is studying the consequences of sedentary behavior. His research paints an unflattering picture of what modern cultures face, but it shouldn’t come as any great surprise.

“We’ve been chronically flat-lined by chairs” in terms of activity levels, he said. And “sitting induces muscular inactivity.”

Unfortunately, we’ve all been sitting way too much. Owen said that as our society presses forward, we generate more and more ways to make our lives more efficient and more convenient.

While this might seem like progress, for decades now we have been experiencing a “diminishing background of activity.” Remote controls, robotic vacuum cleaners, video games, smart technology and other devices meant to make our lives easier, better informed or better entertained have also taken away much of the effort we’d ordinarily expend.

While we may defend our motionless lifestyles as byproducts of life in the modern world, we can’t protect ourselves from the health hazards of sedentary life by sitting back and doing nothing. All talk and no action means we may soon reverse the decades-long trend of children living longer than their parents.

“There is a direct relationship between an increase in TV time and an increase in waist circumference,” Owen said. And with an increase in waist circumference comes a jump in chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and many other weight-related conditions, including early death.

However, Owen sees at least one easy way to fend off this looming menace. Even with the same total amount of time spent sitting in a day, “more breaks are associated with a lower average waist circumference.”

Which brings us back to NEAT. By getting up from your chair more often for small walks—to the mailbox, to the coffee shop, to a co-worker’s office (rather than sending an email)—you will be doing your body a big favor.

The rule of thumb, Levine said, is “if you’ve been sitting for more than 50 minutes, it’s time to get up. NIHRecord Icon

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