Updated: Aug 8
The pandemic has ushered in the new and exciting world of work from home, which, love it or hate it, seems to be here to stay; a dream come true for some but, a burden for others. Regardless of your feelings about WFH, it can result in a pretty motionless day. Chances are your commute's been reduced to mere steps, the kitchen is now the cute coffee or lunch spot and, you're simply a phone or Zoom call away from talking to a co-worker. If you pack a lunch and wear a diaper, you’d never have to leave your chair during the day.
This isn't really new problem, though. Years before COVID, we were already dealing with an epidemic of sedentary lifestyles; one, where the tagline sitting is the new smoking emerged, with some startling stats about the dangers sitting for 8 hours a day with little to no activity.
Apparently, there are similar health risks faced by smokers and diabetics - increased levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, just to name a few (1).
Ironically, 100 years ago the belief was that a sedentary office job was healthier – manual labour was actually viewed as more injurious to health because of physical stress. That thought was blown to shit when epidemiologist Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger published his landmark study in 1970.
Dr. Paffenbarger followed longshoremen in San Francisco for 18 years and compared the health of cargo handlers and office workers. He found that cargo handlers typically burned approximately 925cal per 8-hour shift and more importantly – they had a 27% lower death rate when compared to office workers.
But you can't even compare yourself those office workers back then, because chances are even they were more active outside of work. Dutch scientists looked into the last century and found that there is a 60-70% reduction in total daily expenditure, when compared to our ancestors in the early 1900's (2).
The reason? Technology. Time saving items like washing machines, high powered lawnmowers, snowblowers and affordable cars. Plus we have a lot more time wasting technology like television, the internet and social media.
All this sitting makes it much harder for you to maintain or lose weight because of an enzyme called Lipoprotein lipase or LPL. LPL plays a critical role in converting fat into energy; when you remain sedentary for prolonged periods, your LPL levels drop. A day with increased activity helps sustain LPL levels, which will encourage fat conversion. So adding more movement to your day is imperative for managing weight – even if you hit the gym a couple days a week. (3)
Now if you just sighed fuck me as you’re reading this in your home office, working through lunch, eating soup with The Price is Right playing in the background. . .don’t worry, you're not screwed yet – a little daily activity will help reverse these maladies. Studies have shown that moderate daily activity of 60-75 minutes can counteract these health issues. Although that may seem like a lot, it doesn’t have to all be spent lifting weights or doing cardio.
NEAT: An Advantage, Not a Burden
NEAT is an acronym for the scientific term Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This fancy sounding scientific term is essentially a categorization of all movements done outside of purposeful exercise like eating, fidgeting, cleaning the house, cutting grass, gardening, walking your dog and even brushing your teeth.
NEAT is estimated to account for approximately 15% of daily energy expenditure (4) which may sound small but, according to Dr. James Levine, a researcher from The Mayo Clinic who coined the term – it could mean the difference of 2000 calories a day when comparing two individuals of the same size. He also found that obese patients on average sat for 2 ½ hours more than lean individuals did and stood or walked two hours more than obese people. (5)
Years ago I had a client who interestingly weighed the less on Mondays than on Fridays. In fact, his weight actually crept up throughout the week. It went against everything I had believed and seen in my own pursuit of weight loss in the past, and still does. I mean, everyone loses momentum on the weekend, right?
Not everyone. He was a dad with a young kid who kept him pretty active on the weekends and he'd do a lot house and garden work, too. When we looked at his Fitbit activity numbers, he was about 3 times as active on the weekends and would average over 15,000 a day on Saturday and Sunday, compared to 5,000 or less during the week.
I encouraged him to find more ways to move during his workday, so he started taking calls while walking and utilizing movement breaks as much as possible. Once he started doing this consistently, he found his nutrition started to improve and finally started to see some real progress.
NEAT needs to be a part of your lifestyle, but how can you improve your levels if you're stuck at home all day?
NEAT in Action
To maximize NEAT, in my opinion, you'll actually want to make your day less efficient and put yourself in a working situation where you need to get up more often, even if you use a standing desk. I’d keep the tried and true step goal of hitting 10,000 steps a day in mind, but don’t worry if you don’t hit that mark daily – just make sure you don’t do less than 5,000, because then you’re in sedentary range.
Pay close attention to weekly trends and look at your weekly average, chances are you'll be able to get more steps in on the weekends and can make up for some of busy days throughout the week. If you’re starting out below 5,000, try to gradually increase the weekly average by at least 1,000 steps. You don't need a fancy FitBit or Apple Watch, most phones have step counters or you can buy those cheap-ass clip on pedometers for like $10.
That's just a start, there are other ways to incorporate more movement into your day.
In the book Scatterbrain by Henning Beck – a book I highly recommend, by the way – the neuroscientist makes numerous cases for intelligently using breaks and distraction to improve focus, creativity, and productivity and says that breaks should be included to improve cognitive thinking. By breaking up intense periods of thought and problem solving you can let ideas marinate and the mental break will allow you to come back fresh.
Movement, he notes can help give your mind a break from a challenging problem you’re dealing with and can also help stoke creativity. A study found that walking on a treadmill while taking a Torrance Test - a test which measures creativity - increased creativity levels by 81%, when compared to the sedentary control group. So, adding in any type of movement break into your day will not only help increase your daily N.E.A.T, but could also help you solve any nagging problems you’re struggling with at work. (6)
Apparently, we start to lose steam after 45 minutes of focused work, so aiming to take a movement break every hour, should help keep your mind sharp, while also breaking up periods of reduced mobility.
You could head out the door and go for a quick walk: that hit of sunlight will give you a nice shot of vitamin D and boost serotonin levels, but you may not have time to do that multiple times a day. That's why I love doing little trigger workouts through the day. These small circuits could be as long as 10 minutes or, as little as 5. You could use bodyweight versions of strength exercises or even do a mobility-yoga-type flowy thing. The purpose of these mini workouts, is to get more movement throughout the day - so don't make them too challenging.
A1) Bodyweight squat x 5
A2) Bent over reverse flyer x 5
A3) Glute bridges x 5
A4) Yoga push up x 5
Inchworm walk x 3
Spiderman rotations x 3/side
Downward dog x 3
Years ago I made a small drinking vessel in a pottery class, with the help of the teacher, of course. I'm so proud of this fucking thing, its basically the only cup I use at home. Aside from driving my fiancee nuts, because its so ridiculously small, it keeps me active because I constantly need to get up to refill. Since I drink about 3 litres a day - I'm popping up constantly throughout my two work from home days.
My pride and joy
Embracing inefficiencies means dumping all items you don't immediately need to do your job from your work station. Clean out your snack drawer, chuck that giant water bottle and replace it with a smaller cup, that you'll need to keep getting up to refill. If you can, keep your cell phone out of reach, so if you need a social media break from your day, you'll have to get up and to scroll through Twitter, TikTok or Instagram. Want bonus points? Walk around your house while you scroll.
Get ridiculous with this shit. Think about any way of moving that's harder than walking and have fun with it. You can do some bear crawls, skip or even run to the kitchen to get a snack or refill your water glass to spice up your kitchen commute.
If you have a call that doesn't require being in front of a computer, head outside and walk. If you have to be in front of the computer, take a cue from my Grams' senior fitness classes and do some chair marches or arm swings or whatever movements you can do when you're not on camera. Got a standing desk? Stand on one foot or march in place, any movement counts, so don't judge these workouts - they could mean burning a several hundred more calories during the day!
Improving your NEAT activity levels may just be what you need to do to help you get out of that weight-loss plateau or even improve your work productivity and performance. So start thinking of adding in some more meaningful movement into your day, everyday and ideally every couple of hours.
Comment below if you have any questions, concerns or, if you think I'm full of shit.
(1) Prolonged sitting linked to serious health risks, death. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://www.aafp.org/news/health-of-the-public/20150127sitting.html.
(2) McCall, Pete, 12/21/2017, 6 Things to Know About Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, https://www.acefitness.org
(3) Paffenbarger RS Jr, Laughlin ME, Gima AS, Black RA. Work activity of longshoremen as related to death from coronary heart disease and stroke. N Engl J Med. 1970 May 14;282(20):1109–14.N.E.A.T: Use it to your advantage
(4) Vogels N, Egger G, Plasqui G, Westerterp KR. Estimating Changes in Daily Physical Activity Levels over Time: Implication for Health Interventions from a Novel Approach. Int J Sports Med. 2004 May 24;25(08):607–10.\
(5) Harvard Health Publishing, 1/28/2015, Use the NEAT factor (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) to burn calories, www.health.harvard.edu
(6) Beck, Henning, 2019, Scatterbrain: How the Minds Mistakes make Humans Creative, Innovative, and Successful, Canada, Greystone Books