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Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – It’s NEAT!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD

Although a focus is often placed on structured physical activity (e.g. spending 45 minutes on a treadmill 5 days a week), it is far from the only component of daily energy expenditure. In fact, your total energy expenditure consists of your resting metabolic rate (your “metabolism”), the thermic effect of food (the energy needed to digest your food) and active energy expenditure (energy used to move your body). Active energy expenditure includes structured physical activity, but also includes unstructured activities such as walking, standing, and even sitting (remember that anything that requires muscle contractions also requires energy). Collectively, these unstructured activities are referred to as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) and include all activity-related energy expenditure that is not purposeful exercise.

Although structured exercise has been the focus of most exercise physiology research in the past, new evidence is suggesting that NEAT may also play a role in health, and even in obesity. The first paper to focus on NEAT was performed by James Levine and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. This paper examined weight gain in 16 non-obese adults who were purposely overfed by 1000 calories (roughly the equivalent of 2 Big Macs) a day for 8 weeks, while keeping their level of structured exercise constant. Not surprisingly, all of these subjects gained weight, but there was a huge variability in individual response to this overfeeding (some individuals gained as few as 1.4 kg while others gained as much as 7.2 kg). What is very interesting is that changes in NEAT directly predicted fat gain in response to overfeeding - changes in NEAT accounted for roughly 50% of the variation in fat gain. In other words, when overfed, some individuals naturally began to burn more calories through activities of daily living, postural changes, and even fidgeting, and this increase appears to be at least partly responsible for their resistance to weight gain.

A second paper by this same group compared the amount of NEAT performed by obese and non-obese individuals. As you might expect, obese individuals performed less NEAT than lean individuals. In fact, if obese individuals had NEAT levels similar to the lean non-obese subjects, they would have burned an additional 350 calories a day, equivalent to roughly 1lb of fat every 10 days. What is also interesting, however, is that this reduced NEAT was found in obese individuals even after weight loss, suggesting that NEAT levels are least partially genetically predetermined.

So, what is the take-home message? Individuals vary in their amount non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and this variability may be related to weight gain and obesity. However, these studies also suggest that there is a strong genetic component to NEAT, and that some individuals are just more predisposed to high levels of NEAT than others. But, all of us can make a conscious effort to move more on a daily basis – even small changes like standing, rather than sitting at your desk can make a significant difference over the long term. So, remember, walking to work isn’t just a good idea, it’s NEAT!


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3 Response to "Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – It’s NEAT!"

  1. Darya Pino Said,

    Great post! I lost 5lbs when I started walking to work, and I was already really skinny and really active. This is great advice for everyone.

    Posted on February 17, 2009 at 4:29 PM

  2. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    My parents have been walking to work for about 6 years now, and it has done wonders for their health as well.

    Posted on February 18, 2009 at 6:58 PM

  3. Anonymous Said,

    I LOVE the concept of NEAT- thanks for blogging about this! I attended a talk by James Levine a couple years ago, and have been a fan of NEAT ever since. I'm currently a dietitian at a bariatric surgery center, and tell my patients about NEAT. I'm putting your blog on my favorites list.

    Posted on October 13, 2009 at 1:59 PM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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