Written by Hannah Eva, Eating Disorder Recovery Coach and Accredited Clinical Hypnotherapist 

If I asked you to think of a particular physical place to focus your efforts for bettering your physical health, I imagine that your mind jumps to one of two places: the gym, or the kitchen.

Whilst sustainable dietary changes and formal exercise are, of course, essential to optimising physical wellbeing, there are actually a plethora of other locations that you could be making changes in order to accelerate your journey towards an improved level of physical health. If you’re interested to find out where exactly these locations may be, you’re in the right place.

The total calories that we expend in a day (known as TDEE) is made up of 4 main components:

  1. BMR: Basal Metabolic Rate
  2. NEAT: Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis
  3. TEF: Thermic Effect of Feeding
  4. EEE: Exercise energy expenditure

The graph above outlines an approximation of how our energy is used. Though our BMR is clearly by far the most influential determiner of our caloric needs, because it is largely outside of our control, this blog isn’t going to delve into that. Instead, this blog will focus on explaining what NEAT is, describing the benefits of increasing it and giving some simple ways to get more NEAT exercise into your life.

So, what exactly is NEAT?

Non-Exercise Activity thermogenesis sounds really complicated, but in actuality, it isn’t at all. In short, NEAT simply describes the calories we burn as we go about our daily business. It is the physical movement that we do, that isn’t formal or planned exercise or sports (or breathing and eating).

Why is NEAT important?

As highlighted on the chart above, NEAT exercise account for a significant portion of our total energy expenditure – or the number of calories we burn each day.

People who live a largely sedentary life, and therefore have lower NEAT levels, are at a higher risk of long-term health conditions such as heart disease.

So, whilst going to the gym once per day may be an avenue of your daily activity, it shouldn’t be solely relied upon for improving your physical wellbeing. As displayed by the graph above, the time you spend formally exercising each day actually has a marginal impact on your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure), especially when it is compared to your NEAT.

There are so many benefits to getting more NEAT exercise into our lives– not least that it's a totally skill-free way to up our daily movement. If you're just beginning your fitness journey, getting your non-exercise activity in line can be a fantastic incorporation into your routine to help you progressively build up a baseline level of fitness throughout your days.

Equally, if you are a seasoned gym-goer, upping your NEAT is also useful for many reasons, like how it can help increase blood flow to your muscles as they repair. Aside from aiding muscular recovery, other benefits of NEAT include:

  • It’s free!
  • Good for all competencies; beginners or experts.
  • Can help to relieve stress and improve mental health
  • Improves cardiovascular health
  • Reduces risk of chronic disease
  • Can be personally tailored and as gentle as necessary, if you're returning from injury
  • It's a low-impact form of movement
  • It won’t compromise any other training or exercise performance.

How much NEAT is enough NEAT?

In truth, there is no specific rule to determine how much NEAT we should be doing. Varying factors such as age, physical health, occupation and social circumstances will contribute to determining this amount. If you have an active job which requires you to consistently be on the go, for example, NEAT may not be such a priority for you on your workdays, compared to someone who is working at a desk all day and drives most of the time. We’ve particularly noticed that our overall movement levels take a knock when working from home. If you’re also experiencing this, it will be even more important for you to consider these NEAT additions.

In any case, though, in order to create a plan that is sustainable, we all need to consider what is realistic for us. A useful tenet we can ask ourselves when we a ruminating over incorporating something new into our schedule might be:

"Do I see myself still doing this in 6-months’ time?”

If the answer to that is “NOPE”, stop it, and search for a more sustainable alternative. Rather than looking at changes such as this as a short-term solution, try your best to view them as sustainable lifestyle shifts that have a more permanent part in your future.

We get it. We know how it feels to be spinning one hundred different plates at once, and merely keeping them up can itself feel like an almighty battle. Don’t forget, though, that any changes you make don’t have to be drastic. Instead, they should be reasonably tailored to what you can make work. This process could begin simply by pinpointing a gap in the second half of your lunch break when you might usually check your social media – and going from there. Small steps (literally) add up to big wins – we promise!

What are examples of NEAT?

NEAT activities can include anything from walking the dog, cooking, cleaning, doing gardening, playing with your children at the park, washing the car, or even fidgeting at your desk. It’s quite likely you’re doing a lot of this already. Here’s a list of how a standard afternoon school pick-up could already be involving plenty of NEAT:

  • Walking to a co-worker’s desk instead of emailing or calling them to smugly say “cheerio – it was only a morning shift for me today!”
  • Pacing the sidelines as your kids’ sports match, (refraining from becoming too impassioned because it’s only a game!).
  • Walking briskly back to the car, via the classroom to grab belongings.
  • Unloading the car of everyone’s belongings in several trips.
  • Walking upstairs to grab a sweater, (rather than having somebody throw it down).
  • Meandering around the house asking if anybody has any requests for dinner.
  • (Possibly hastily searching the house for your misplaced keys…?)
  • Walking across the store car park (rather than finding a spot right next to the store door).
  • Holding a basket.
  • Strolling the isles.
  • Squatting to grab a bag of rice.
  • Standing at the self-checkout, gesturing for a customer assistant to identify an item in your bagging area.
  • Standing and stirring whilst cooking.
  • Wiping the surfaces and tidying the kitchen after cooking.
  • Rounding up the kids for bed.
  • Putting the kettle on after a long day, (or rummaging for a corkscrew).

The likelihood is that you’re doing lots of NEAT already. Where possible and realistic, just look to add in that little bit more.

About the author: Hannah is a mental health coach whose area of interest lies primarily in nutrition and movement. Hannah also delivers workshops in the community and workplaces, with a goal to advocate for the achievement of long-term and sustainable wellbeing.