Unfamiliar with acronyms? NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and includes any movement you make throughout the day that isn’t exercise, sleeping, or eating. “These include activities like walking, climbing stairs, vacuuming, cleaning your house, dancing,” says Taylor Fazio, RD, CDN, in a recent Instagram video.
Meanwhile, EAT stands for exercise activity thermogenesis. As you might have guessed, this refers to any energy spent doing a more traditional workout like cardio or strength training. “The thing that might be surprising is that NEAT contributes more to your total daily energy expenditure than exercise alone,” says Fazio. “And so that means that being an overall active person—someone who exercises once in a while, but gets regular activity throughout the day—is a sweet spot for health.”
Why maximizing your NEAT minutes can prolong your health
According to exercise physiologist Sharon Gumm, PhD, CSCS, our bodies are designed to move, and to move often. “The activity of our muscles signals many important processes in our body,” he explains. “For example, signals from our muscles can tell our brain to release neurochemicals and hormones, activate our cardiovascular and metabolic systems, and more.”
These days, our muscles aren’t active enough because we spend so much time sitting still, and as a result, we get far less of those important signals, Dr. According to Gum. “That means we don’t release as many feel-good chemicals in our brains every day, our hearts and lungs don’t get to practice making the small adjustments needed to pump blood around our bodies. Not as good as pulling fat and carbohydrates out of the bloodstream,” she says. “When our body doesn’t do these things well, it can put us at a higher risk of disease.”
Thanks to the work of investigative journalist and longevity expert Dan Buettner, we know how people living in the Blue Zone eat, live and stay active, all of which contribute to their increased health. (It is common for people in this region to live to be over 100 years old, while the average life expectancy in the United States is 78 years.) Now, thanks to new research, we have a better understanding of how NEAT movements contribute to their longevity eg.
In addition to reducing the risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, being active helps protect your brain from age-related cognitive decline. A study by the German Center of Neurodegenerative Diseases found that people who participated in NEAT activities, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator and walking instead of driving, had higher brain volumes than people who sat still most of their day. “The results of our study indicate that even small behavioral changes, such as walking 15 minutes a day, can have a substantial positive effect on the brain and potentially prevent age-related loss of brain matter and the development of neurodegenerative diseases,” wrote Fabien Fox, PhD, neuroscientist and lead author of the current study, in a press release. “Larger brain volumes provide better protection against neurodegeneration than smaller ones.”
Since most people are busy or exercise-averse, an easy way to focus on increasing your NEAT vs. EAT minutes is to make an existing daily activity more active, says Arjun V. Masurkar, MD, PhD, clinical core director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at NYU Langone, formerly Dr. good + good.
How to optimize your NEAT vs. EAT time
Dr. Gum says to think of NEAT as low-intensity movement and exercise as moderate- or high-intensity movement. “Low-intensity movement should make up most of the movement you do every day and is the foundation for your body to function efficiently and achieve a baseline of health,” she says. “If you have a good foundation of health, you can use higher intensity movement as an opportunity to improve your health.”
In an ideal world, you’d get hybrid training where you get a mix of strength training and high- and moderate-intensity cardio twice per week that adds up to between 75 and 300 minutes per week if you follow it. Physical Activity Guidelines for US Adults are issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services These criteria have been shown to protect people from chronic diseases that contribute to premature death.
However, as research shows, exercise alone won’t be enough to achieve your Blue Zone status. “In fact, people who exercise a lot but sit for long periods of time each day are still at risk of serious health problems,” says Dr. Gum. He recommends moving as often as possible with NEAT activities. “A good place to start is to take breaks from sitting for long periods by moving for at least a few minutes every half hour,” she says. “Also, do about 30 to 60 minutes of structured exercise most days of the week.
As with any healthy habit, consistency is key. “Keep moving a little throughout the day; it really adds up,” says Fazio. For example, she recommends using half of your lunch break to walk around the block. Every little bit helps in the long run.