Recently I was on a long-haul flight and sat next to a very large man who occupied the window seat on my left. To my right there was a middle-aged man whose constant moving around began, after a few hours, to border on the irritating. One minute he was working with his computer, the next he headed to the lavatory, then he dived into the overhead locker to retrieve his bag, then he fiddled with his smartphone. It was endless. Meanwhile the obese gentleman was utterly inert: not even a toilet stop in 6 hours of flying. The difference between these two individuals was striking, because the habitual fidgeter was as slim as the man next to me was obese.
Recent research corroborates what my own observation suggests, that even apparently trivial, low-intensity movements – pacing up and down, fiddling, fidgeting, typing, standing, tying your shoes etc - can make an important contribution to calorie expenditure and weight loss. These sorts of activities are sometimes referred to as NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) and although they include all the normal activities of daily living, they specifically exclude sporting or leisure-time exercise such as jogging, swimming and going to the gym.
The problem nowadays is that modern living, with all its labour saving devices such as TV remotes, lifts and escalators, washing machines and dishwashers, has had a huge impact on reducing calorie expenditure through NEAT. Because NEAT may account for between 15-50% of total calories expended in a day, over long periods this decline could clearly make a contribution to weight gain. For example, in one study researchers analyzed the effects of normal daily activities such as washing dishes and climbing the stairs and found that people who avoided labour saving devices burned an extra 120 calories per day, which adds up to around 12lbs of fat weight per year. In another study, researchers found that as the use of labour-saving devices declined, so did obesity rates, whilst there was no association with food intake. And apropos my two in-flight chums, other studies have confirmed my impression that obese individuals perform dramatically fewer NEAT tasks than their lean counterparts.
So, in terms of managing your weight, it may be easier to focus on NEAT – walking to work, using the stairs, ditching the TV remote – rather than slavishly trying (and failing) to get to the gym to exercise for weight loss. Make sure you don’t sit for too long - and don’t forget to fidget!
Dr David Ashton
12th October 2011