Fidget? No! Walk? Yes!
Fidgeting is not enough. That's the message from the author of the much-buzzed-about recent study that threatened to turn us into a nation of obsessive toe tappers and knuckle crackers, all with the aim of burning calories. "Nonexercise activity thermogenesis," a fancy term for exercise accumulated as part of your daily routine, actually involves a bit more. Standing up. Putting one foot in front of the other. In other words, walking (the "wiggling" in the press release got people focused on fidgeting their way to skinniness).
James Levine, the Mayo Clinic endocrinologist who conducted the study, is the poster child for NEAT. He hates the gym. "I walk in and immediately walk out," he says, speaking by phone from his office. There is a slight whirring on the line. It's his treadmill. Levine so believes in the power of NEAT that he has mounted his computer over his inexpensive treadmill. He ambulates at about 0.7 mph all day. He types. He drinks coffee. He has meetings (there's another treadmill in the office for guests). He does step off to write letters by hand. At 5 foot 9 and 155 pounds, he says he doesn't watch what he eats.
The point is not that you have to walk for 10 hours a day, as Levine estimates he does. It's that exercise you do while doing something else can add up. In their study, he and colleagues found that lean people spend a daily average of 150 fewer minutes sitting than obese ones do. That adds up to 350 extra calories burned every day (allowing you a guilt-free Caramel Kreme Crunch Krispy Kreme). And the sedentary weren't that way just because they were carrying extra pounds; later in the experiment, researchers bulked up the lean people, controlled the calories of the obese ones, and discovered the shift in weight didn't affect NEAT levels. Some people are just wired to enjoy sitting more than others.
But, Levine says, you can wean yourself from your chair in a few weeks. It takes a wholesale re-evaluation of how (and in what position) you spend your time. Try to make walking the default rather than the exception. Here's how a typical NEAT-friendly day might go, according to Levine and other fitness experts (there are more tips at americaonthemove.org ):
7:00 a.m. If you can't walk to work, take a 10-minute stroll before you hop in the car. Park as far away from your office as you can. If you're on public transportation, standing won't burn many more calories than sitting. But getting off a couple of stops early and walking the rest of the way to work . . . that will!
10:00 a.m. At break time, use the coffee machine farthest from your workstation. Then use the farthest restroom, too.
10:30 a.m. Instead of sending E-mail or interoffice mail to colleagues, visit them--it gets you moving (and also cuts down on E-mail miscommunication).
Noon Sit down to have lunch. Please. Even Levine does. For the rest of the hour, window-shop at the mall instead of shopping online. Alternatively, take your lunch to a local park. Or stroll around the industrial park where you work. You get the idea.
2:00 p.m. In office space, no one can see you look silly. During conference calls, pace your office with a headset phone.
4:00 p.m. Instead of meeting a colleague to talk over coffee, take a walk.
6:00 p.m. Even if you aren't one of those soccer parents who yell at the ref, stalk the sidelines at your kid's game.
7:30 p.m. Shadowbox or dance around (about 5 calories a minute for a 150-pounder) while you wait for the pasta water to boil or the microwave to finish heating up leftovers.
9:00 p.m. Hide the TV remote. When you want to change the channel, you'll have to get up and walk across the room. This is an entertaining way to make your spouse more NEAT, too.
11:00 p.m. Don't brush your teeth on the sofa in front of the news; walk around or stand on one foot to improve balance.
Of course, there is a fine line between dedication and madness, and not every occasion calls for movement. "I can imagine telling someone to start marching in place when they're in line for the grocery store," says Scott Danberg, director of spa and fitness for the Pritikin Longevity Institute & Spa in Florida. "They wouldn't do it." Heel raises are more subtle.
And remember, if your goal is cardiovascular fitness, you should also have 30 minutes or so of purposeful exercise a day--even if it's just a brisk afterdinner walk. Neat, eh?
This story appears in the February 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.