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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

NEAT: An overlooked component of metabolism

Maintaining a healthy body weight is essentially a balancing act between energy in and energy out. The “energy in” comes from calories in our diet. The “energy out” side of things is more complicated. We each have a unique basal metabolic rate (BMR) which describes the energy consumed daily by essential bodily functions: blood circulation, breathing, digestion, etc. We also burn calories exercising, and this is where most people focus their efforts. This is undoubtedly an important component of the overall equation, but so is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).

NEAT describes the calories we burn by movements that are not intentional exercise. This includes fidgeting, standing, laughing, walking, and more. One would think that the energy expended from these small-scale movements is miniscule compared to that expended during exercise, but this turns out to be far from the truth. In fact, NEAT is often responsible for more calories burned on a daily basis than is exercise.

This also makes sense given what we know about the populations that live the longest. They aren’t always going to the gym for an hour a day, but they certainly live active lifestyles. I recently wrote about the Costa Rican community that is home to many of the world’s centenarians. While the people here may not deliberately exercise often, they are moving continuously due to the nature of their work and lifestyle. This holds true for other longevity hotspots, which tend to be places where walking or biking are the standard modes of transportation.

This doesn’t change the fact that intentional exercise is essential for maintaining health and functionality as we age. The impact of NEAT simply shows us that short bouts of exercise are not enough to compensate for a sedentary lifestyle. Working out for 30 minutes a day is great, but the rest of the day is important too. The person who walks to work, takes the stairs, and uses a standing desk will experience significant long-term benefit over the person who drives everywhere they go, takes the elevator, and sits in an office chair for hours on end.

In fact, this is a key concept in the world of longevity and beyond. Meaningful change comes from daily decisions, routines, and actions that over time compound into something bigger. The occasional workout or healthy meal can’t compensate for a lifestyle that is incompatible with a long healthspan. Find an easy way to bolster NEAT in your daily life, and continue to gradually add more movement to your routine. This built-in activity will contribute more than you think to your metabolic health.


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