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Every Little Movement Counts: How NEAT Can Help Employees Be Healthier

Did you know that little bursts of activity—like taking a lap around the office, using the stairs, or working at a standing desk—can be a real game changer when it comes to employee health? This kind of movement is called NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and helps to counteract the effects of sitting. In this week’s blog we discuss how to encourage employees to squeeze more NEAT into their daily routine—whether they’re at home or in the office.

Sitting is the new smoking.

Studies have shown that sedentary behaviors (i.e., sitting for extended periods of time without standing or walking) have increased in the last two decades, with many adults now sitting an average of six and a half hours per day.1 Human beings were not meant to sit for so long, and we are starting to see the negative health effects.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) noted that “individuals who predominantly engaged in sitting at work exhibited a higher risk of mortality from all causes (16%) and cardiovascular disease (34%) compared with those who predominantly did not sit, even after adjusting for sex, age, education, smoking, drinking, and body mass index.”2 Prolonged bouts of sitting have been linked to all sorts of other chronic illness, too, including diabetes, obesity, vascular problems, musculoskeletal issues, dementia and even cancer.3

Why is sitting so bad for employees?

There’s no definitive answer yet, but scientists believe it likely has something to do with the lack of use of the largest muscles in our body, our leg muscles. According to Keith Diaz, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, “muscles are important in regulating things like blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But when you sit for too long, your muscles don’t have the opportunity to contract and operate optimally.”4 This leads to a build-up of blood sugar and cholesterol in our bloodstreams.5

So what can employees do to counteract the effects of sitting?

The JAMA study found that it would take just an additional 15 to 30 minutes of physical activity per day to mitigate the risk of sitting and bring it in line with the level of risk for people who don’t sit all day at work.6 In addition, a small Swedish study found that “standing up and moving every 30 minutes for about three minutes may lessen the health impacts of over-sitting.”7 These mini-breaks, which could be as few as 15 steps, had the power to improve blood sugar control, while minimally interrupting work flow.8

Here’s where NEAT comes in.

NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, refers to the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. 9 It includes the energy used doing everyday things like walking to work, housework, and even fidgeting. And, when it comes to counteracting the effects of sitting, focusing on NEAT is an excellent way to get those critical 15 to 30 minutes of added activity into our days.

You may be thinking, well, I exercise most days, so doesn’t that count? Unfortunately, no. NEAT is the activity you do above and beyond exercising. According to WebMD, even if we achieve the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week, it’s still no match for seven or more hours per day spent sitting hunched over at our desks.

So how can desk workers increase NEAT at work?

Here are some ideas:

  • Move every 30 minutes for three minutes. The Swedish study participants strolled the halls, walked up and down the stairs, marched in place, squatted and hopped to get some movement in.
  • Set a fitness device or watch to alert you at the top of the hour. If moving every 30 minutes is too distracting, aim for a certain number of steps per hour, typically 250, and have your device notify you at 10 minutes to the hour if you haven’t met that goal.
  • Use a standing desk for part or all of the day. Even though you aren’t moving around, your leg muscles need to be activated to keep you upright. Plus, standing burns more calories than sitting—an added benefit.
  • Pace while on phone calls. Unless you have to take notes, walking and talking is a great way to get incremental movement in your day.
  • Use a smaller water bottle, which forces you to get up several times to refill it.

For employees with disabilities who may not be able to engage in some of the above due to wheelchair use or other limitations, it’s still possible to get in some incremental exercise during the day. Wheeling oneself in a wheelchair around the office or home, chair yoga, using resistance bands or weights while seated, stretching, and even fidgeting (jiggling legs, tapping feet, or twirling a pen) all count.10

What about increasing NEAT at home?

There are lots of activities around the home that qualify as NEAT:

  • Run around with kids, grandkids or pets.
  • Sit on a stability ball while watching TV, which uses your core muscles.
  • Garden or do yard work.
  • Take a least a 10-minute walk each day. Do laps around your house on days you can’t walk outside.
  • Do jumping jacks or squats a few times a day.
  • Make your own meals. The energy expended shopping for ingredients and standing to chop and cook all increase your NEAT.
  • Walk the dog.
  • Put away laundry piecemeal: rather than using a laundry basket to carry clothes, make several trips with bundles of clothes in your arms.
  • Do small household chores throughout the day to break up sitting time.

At its core, adding NEAT activities to our day is a fairly simple, yet extremely effective way to counteract the effects of sitting. All it takes is an additional 15 to 30 minutes of any kind of movement that would otherwise default into sitting time.

For help devising a strategy that includes ways to up your employees’ physical activity and improve overall well-being, contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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