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in: Fitness, Health & Fitness, Podcast

• Last updated: January 14, 2024

Podcast #955: The Power of NEAT — Move a Little to Lose a Lot

Do you have a goal to lose weight? If so, you’re probably thinking about how you need to exercise more. And that can certainly help. But what about the 23 hours a day you’re not at the gym? How much you move during those hours — from walking to the mailbox to fidgeting at your desk — can be just as important in winning the battle of the bulge.

Here to explain the importance of what’s called non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, is Dr. James Levine, a professor, the co-director of the Mayo Clinic’s Obesity Solutions Initiative, the inventor of the treadmill desk, and the author of Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. James explains how much more sedentary we are than we used to be and what happens to your body when, as the average American does, you spend two-thirds of your day sitting. He shares how doing the lightest kinds of physical activity, even standing more, can help you lose a significant amount of weight and improve other aspects of health, from your sleep to your mood. And we talk about how to easily incorporate more NEAT into your day.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Do you have a goal to lose weight? If so, you’re probably thinking about how you need to exercise more, and that can certainly help. But what about the 23 hours a day you’re not at the gym? How much you move during those hours, from walking to the mailbox to fidgeting at your desk, can be just as important in winning the battle of the bulge.

Here to explain the importance of what’s called non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, is Dr. James Levine, a professor, the co-director of the Mayo Clinic’s Obesity Solutions Initiative, the inventor of the treadmill desk, and the author of Get Up, Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. James explains how much more sedentary we are than we used to be, what happens to your body when you spend half of your day sitting.

He shares how doing the lightest kinds of physical activity, even standing more, can help you lose a significant amount of weight and improve other aspects of your health, from your sleep to your mood. And we talk about how you can easily incorporate more NEAT into your day. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/neat.

All right. James Levine, welcome to the show.

Dr. James Levine: Thank you so much for having me, Brett. So you have spent your career researching obesity, particularly how our physical activity levels can contribute to how trim we are or how fat we are. When it comes to the way our body burns or uses calories, you’ve broke it down in your work, and there’s basically three ways our bodies burn calories. What are those three ways our body uses calories?

Yeah, the three basic ways we burn calories are there is the basal metabolism. Basal metabolism accounts for about 60% of the total. The bigger you are, the bigger your basal metabolism, or more specifically, the greater your lean body mass, the greater your basal metabolism. Now what’s important is, yes, it’s actually the majority burn, but you can’t change it. So moving on, the next one is the thermic effect of food. It accounts for about 11% of the total. Now, those are the calories you expend when you convert your meal into intermediary metabolites like glycogen and glucose.

So, if you have three meals a day, you’re gonna have three thermic effects of food. It accounts for about 11% of the total. Guess what? You can’t really change it. Now, the remaining component, where we’ve done 60, we’ve done 10. So the remaining component is about 30% on average of the calorie burn is through activity. Activity is either non-exercise activity or putting on your lycra spandex shorts. I know, Brett, I think you adore those and going off for a run.

We all know what exercise is, but most people around the world actually don’t take purposeful exercise at all. So all of their calorie burn through activity is through non-exercise activity. And in terms of calories, we call that non-exercise activity thermogenesis. And Brett, as a micro sidebar, if I may, even if you do go and do pilates three times a week or whatever that may be, when you actually work out how many calories you burn doing those three classes, which are 30 minutes, and you’ve done the three times a week, you’ve driven there, and so on and so forth. That only averages out to about 100 calories a day, and that’s if you’re having a proper workout.

Dr. James Levine: And so really, for nearly everybody listening to the podcast, your non-exercise activity thermogenesis are the calories you burn through daily energy activity.

Brett McKay: So, okay, non-exercise activity thermogenesis, shorthand, it’s NEAT. It’s called NEAT.

Dr. James Levine: NEAT.

Brett McKay: So basically, it’s just anytime you move during the day, like I’m standing up while doing this interview, talking to you, I’m gesticulating. That is NEAT, correct?

Dr. James Levine: NEAT are the calories you burn throughout the day. That is exactly correct. And I’m also standing up, Brett. There we go. Twin standards. But yeah, it’s all those calories you burn throughout the day. And it’s the calories you burn sort of as you get out of bed and go make coffee and go and collect the mail from the mailbox. It’s the mooching around you do during your day. It’s even sort of the tapping on the table as you’re waiting for the website to upload. And it’s sort of chopping up vegetables in the evening as you’re making your dinner. It’s wandering around the supermarket. It’s all those things you do that aren’t sleeping and eating.

Brett McKay: And how many calories, you’ve figured this out… Like how many calories do we burn in a typical NEAT activity? So if we’re just walking from the couch to the kitchen or we’re doing laundry, like what do we, like how much does it actually burn?

Dr. James Levine: So let’s think about that. First of all, as you know, what’s your NEAT for the day, and then how do you actually get to that number? So as we sort of agreed, it’s about 30% of your calories throughout the day. So that’s gonna be about, for an average person, about 700 calories. Now, what’s really, really interesting about NEAT is if you sort of look at this, if you compare 100s of people, the data set is 576 people living in high-income countries.

What you can see is actually an astonishing variation. Some people will burn 2000 calories a day more NEAT than other people. Example, if you happen to be a mail person delivering mail on foot throughout your day, or you work in agriculture, you can actually be burning 2000 calories a day more through your NEAT than if you’re actually sitting behind your desk all day long and then sitting in the evening in your rather comfy armchair.

Now, how does that actually compute? Now, what’s most important about all of this is that the sort of the biggest way of burning calories through your NEAT is to get off your bottom and walk. And I don’t necessarily mean sort of striding around, I mean mooching around. So if you get up and just walk at one mile an hour, which we call shopping speed, that’s sort of the speed when you’re going through TJ Maxx looking for the best deal. You’re walking on average about one mile an hour. You double your energy expenditure. You’re burning an extra 100 calories an hour.

So, you can immediately appreciate if you spend two hours online doing your shopping, sitting on your bottom versus mooching around at the mall for a couple of hours, there’s 200 calories right there. Now, if you walk a little bit faster at two miles an hour, you’re at 150 calories an hour. So now, Brett, you and I are both upstanding as we’re doing this podcast. We could either sit down absolutely statically still and burn almost nothing above basal. Or we could sort of stroll at about two miles an hour, which is the speed of a walk and talk meeting, and burn 150 calories each.

And so, when you actually compare people with very high NEAT to people with very low NEAT, people with very low NEAT are sitting on their bottoms all day. People with the highest NEAT are up mooching around, doing stuff on their feet, whether that’s at work or at play.

Brett McKay: All right, today, what’s the typical amount of NEAT that most Americans get? I think you said 700 calories?

Dr. James Levine: Yeah, that would be a reasonable number right there. But again, as you’re listening to this, remember the key thing, Brett, is that this is highly variable. So as you’re listening to this podcast, and you’re somebody sort of a bit like my job, which is 100% behind a computer screen every single day of the week, then you know intuitively that that’s too much sitting. And I don’t know if you’re aware of this now, if you look at job postings, they will even put as a warning on the job posting, this job requires excessive sedentary time. It’s actually extraordinary.

On the other hand, if you happen to have a job, whether that’s working in a warehouse, whether that’s working in a bakery, whether that’s working in fields, whether that’s sort of something much more ambulatory, that could even sort of be a greeter at Walmart, if you like, where you’re also mooching around. You can imagine having a NEAT five, six, 700 calories a day more than the person confined to a sedentary job.

Brett McKay: So there’s been a lot of talk about rising obesity rates in the United States, and there’s been different arguments put forth about what the cause is. It’s people are eating more, people are eating more sugary foods, people are eating more fatty foods. And you highlight research, but oftentimes it gets overlooked is that people are just moving less. Do we know like how much less we are experiencing NEAT in America today?

Dr. James Levine: Yeah. If you go back sort of 200 years to the Industrial Revolution, people moved from agricultural environments into the cities. And then what happened, of course, is there were production lines in the big factories. And then what happened, what, in the 1950s or thereabouts, people started sitting down working behind desks. And in fact, office desks were actually designed including the chair with the wheels, to stop people getting up and moving because the ergonomists back then believed that if you could stop people getting up and walking, they would actually be more productive if they sat behind their desk all day long. They were wrong.

But, that is exactly sort of how things have evolved to push us down in our chairs. And are we sitting too long? Oh, my goodness. Yes, we are. How do I know that? Is it just because of the rising obesity rates that you talk of? And there are really good data to the effect that we have sat progressively more and more and more over the last 200 years. But in fact, our calorie intake has not increased substantially. The only data showing that it has are actually from Australia.

So yeah, our calorie intake has been constant, but it’s too much for the degree of inactivity we have. And it’s not Brett, just about obesity. There are 27 other chronic diseases and conditions associated with sitting too much. And that means things like diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, even some types of cancer, and of course, musculoskeletal problems. And so, yes, on the other hand, you may be listening to this podcast and smiling. It’s quite interesting, but it’s bigger than that. It’s really serious stuff. And it’s not just our bodies we’re hurting. We’ve set up a society whereby our kids are gonna ultimately receive the world we’ve created for them.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s interesting you point out this lack of activity, physical activity on a daily basis is probably driving the obesity, a big factor in driving the obesity. You talk about, if you even look at office work, you talk about this in one of your books. If you look at office work 50 years ago compared today, you did a lot more moving in the office than today. You had to move even if you were just doing a desk job.

Dr. James Levine: This is a 100% correct. I think back to sort of when I started in the day. I’ll give you a fantastic example. My very first job was working for a really famous professor called Professor Davies, who is an osteoporosis professor. And of course, as you may be aware, osteoporosis is growing quicker and quicker, partly due to the lack of activity. And she asked me to gather papers about a certain document she was writing for the World Health Organization. I said, I’d love to.

Now, those papers were scientific articles. And in order to gather them, I kid you not, I literally had to get on my bicycle and cycle across London to probably one of 15 different libraries to gather all the articles she needed. Yes, it took a lot of time. But my goodness, I’d come into her office, sweat pouring down my back. Today, click, click, click, click, click, it’s done. And just taking that simple example, all of us listening who are of a certain age, remember how difficult things used to be where we used to have to go and get resources.

We used to… We even have to sort of walk to the printer, which was actually in the printing room. Yeah. Now we barely… We can actually spend our entire day when you think about it in the office at work. And if I need my lunch, click, click, click, DoorDash right to my desk and get home, drive through, click, click, click, Pizza at my door, and on we go. And if you sort of step back and actually think about how much time I spend sitting every day, if you think about it, what’s really interesting is you can’t really imagine a world where you don’t spend it sitting because it’s sort of a subsidiary symptom of how we actually live.

And so you don’t sort of analyze, Oh, I’m sitting a lot at the moment. You just live your life, you see. And so this is what’s happened. It sort of crept up on us. And all of a sudden, we’ve all become these terribly sedentary and rather unwell and sort of slightly blue, sedentary office workers, both in the office and at home.

Brett McKay: When some people, or I think when most people notice that I’m gaining some weight, I notice that I don’t move around all that much ’cause I have an office job that doesn’t allow me to move around all that much. They think, well, I can take care of this with just diet and exercise. But you argue that diet and exercise will never be enough to compensate for the lack of NEAT. The problem with dieting, just reducing calories, is that you can’t do that forever.

So, let’s say you reduce your calories and you do lose weight. Because you’ve reduced the amount of calories you’re consuming. But in order to continue the weight loss with calorie reduction, you have to decrease the calories even more because you’ve likely decreased your metabolic, overall metabolic rate, resting metabolic rate ’cause you’re smaller. So your body requires fewer calories. And so, it gets to a point where it becomes unsustainable. And I think…

Dr. James Levine:Let me jump in there, if I may, please. ‘Cause you’ve touched on a really interesting point. Not only is everything you just said correct, but it’s even sort of more subtle than that, if I may please. When somebody loses weight through caloric restriction, through cutting their calories down, yeah, body fat is disseminated. Somebody can also lose some lean body mass and body weight declines on a lower calorie intake. The trouble with this is the body is not a static system. The body, brilliant in its design, adjusts and actually becomes more efficient.

So in fact, once you’re at that lower caloric intake, the body is working more efficiently, making it actually more difficult to lose more weight. So you’re not even dealing with a sort of a simple mathematic is I’ve decreased my calories in, I’m now going to be able to maintain a lower body weight easier. That actually isn’t true because the body will sort of counter-regulate to make it more difficult to maintain your body weight.

Brett McKay: And then also exercise just relying on focused exercise activities to offset the amount of being sedentary. As you said earlier, it’s not gonna do much in the long run ’cause you might just burn 100, 200, 300 calories and that can’t make up for being sedentary every other hour you’re awake.

Dr. James Levine: Purposeful exercise for the sake of improving your health, like going to the gym or something like that, is fantastic if you like to do it. Let’s be clear about that. If you like to go to the gym, keep doing it, please. It’s really good for you. It’s really good for your health. But very interestingly, again, for even people who go to the gym, the harm associated with sedentariness, as you say, all the other time that you’re not at the gym, which is basically 95% of your week, the harm of sedentariness is still not eliminated.

So, if you go to the gym, great. But if you’re sedentary, you’re sedentary. And if you’re sedentary, it’s causing you harm.

Brett McKay: I feel like in the last decade or so, people, whether… You’re talking about dedicated exercise or just physical activity in general, people have been kind of down on physical activity as a method of weight management. There’s this idea out there that you can’t exercise your way or burn your way to weight loss. Diet is what really matters. If you move more at some times, you’re just going to slow down. At other times, your body’s gonna find ways to just compensate for that extra activity somehow.

But you did a study that proved, Yes, activity can keep the pounds off. It was this really complex study. You basically got a bunch of people, including yourself, and then you overfed them 1000 calories a day. And then you just watched what happened. Who gained weight and who lost weight. So walk us through that study. And what did you learn from this study?

Dr. James Levine: Yeah, Brett, it was extraordinary. It was called the Great Overfeeding Experiment. And that is exactly what we did. But I have to tell you, this wasn’t done using a computer watch or guessing. This was done meticulously in metabolic laboratories at Mayo Clinic. It was a big, big deal. Every single food item was weighed and measured chemically. Every single movement was captured. Every calorie burned was analyzed. And even how people change their body fat was measured using precise technology down to a few 100 grams.

It was extraordinary work. A huge team of people helped do it. And what we found were two things that I think are really important. You can take a group of people, none of whom have obesity, and you can expose all of them to 1000 calories a day of overfeeding for months on end. And the extraordinary thing, first of all, is this, one person can take nearly all of those extra thousand calories and deposit it in body fat. That person is super prone, almost like a sponge absorbing water, to developing excess body fat.

On the other hand, another person can receive the same amount of excess food and somehow magically through their brain get up and start spontaneously moving. Their NEAT can increase for extra 1000 calories they’ve received. Their NEAT can increase 700 extra calories a day through movement, not going to the gym, through movement. 700 calories extra a day. On one hand, you’ve got somebody who seems to absorb every extra gram of food and deposit it in their body fat.

On the other hand, you’ve got somebody who you can overfeed a 1000 calories a day and gains almost no body fat because they switch on their NEAT. They get up and they move. So what you realize is, first of all, some people are really predisposed to gaining obesity. Yeah, we all know that and I’m sure some of your people listening are nodding their heads right now. But other people have this capacity from inside of the brain to get up and move so much more that they don’t gain any weight with overfeeding. And they never went to a gym. So that’s the first thing. Now what’s the second thing? The second thing is probably even more important than that.

The second thing is, if you are one of those people nodding your head right now, if you’re one of those individuals who has a tremendous susceptibility to gaining excess body weight, as soon as you sniff extra food, what you realize is that the body is designed in such a way that you can not gain more body weight. You cannot gain excess body weight and develop obesity if you are up and you are moving and your body has the capacity to do this. And you can even burn up to, if you like, 700 calories a day extra based on those data. So it’s a beautiful idea. You can win. You don’t need to go to the gym.

You can get up and move 100s of extra calories a day, whether that’s converting a standard meeting at work to a walk and talk meeting, whether that’s converting shopping online to actually shopping by foot, whether that’s getting your groceries delivered to your door from the supermarket, or actually going to the supermarket and physically choosing it. You can integrate movement into your day, so much so to stave off excess body weight, and you can even burn up to an extra 700 calories a day doing it.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Did you all figure out what causes some people to have that natural tendency to, when they consume more calories, they just start moving more naturally and others don’t do that? Is there a gene?

Dr. James Levine: Yeah, we spent a lot of time on that. And again, what’s fascinating is this. Think about it for a second. So what we did in that experiment is we got completely healthy, normal volunteers and we overfed them. We checked that they took every single extra calorie that they were given. We measured that. We even measured their urine in their stool, I should tell you. We had freezers full of poop. And what we then measured was that people responded to that by increasing their NEAT, their movement throughout their day. If you think about it for a second, how did people know to do that? It had never been discovered before.

I mean, how did that happen? People, if you like, knew to do it subconsciously because there’s a mechanism in the brain that counter-regulates how our food relates to our activity. And we thought, well, we’ve got to go and try and find that area in the brain because then we can actually help people really achieve their goals. And so we had a whole neuroscience team led by Dr. Novak, a brilliant young neuroscientist, and she identified tiny parts of the brain right in the hypothalamus, which is an old part of the brain that switches on your NEAT and switches on NEAT more in some people than others. So in fact, right at the center of your brain right now as you’re listening to this podcast, your brain is analyzing your calories in, your calories out, and is propelling you to move more or move less. So yes, there’s a deep biology underpinning this.

Brett McKay: Okay, so in some people, there’s a part of the brain that’s more discerning or more activated so that whenever you take in excess calories, it sends a signal to move more. And then in some people, that part doesn’t switch on as strongly. But a big point you make in all of your books you’ve written is that even if you don’t have that natural tendency to want to move more whenever you consume excess calories, you’re not destined to be an inert lump. You can still take action. It doesn’t have to be big change. Just take small, tiny changes throughout the day to counteract that.

Dr. James Levine: Absolutely. And the trick, if you like, I actually, as somebody who looks after patients, I really don’t like tricks. But nonetheless, for you, Brett, the trick. The trick to all of this is to make a decision. Is to make a decision with your day? Today. Is today going to be the day I’m gonna get up and take control of my life and step forwards? Or is today gonna be the day I stay on my seat? If you decide to stay on your seat, my only prayer is that tomorrow you think the same question of yourself.

On the other hand, if today is the day right now that you are going to get up, take control, and take a step forward, the moment you do that, you will do it tomorrow and you’ll do it the next day. And the data suggests that if you can find those moments throughout your day to consistently be up and moving, and you do it for 21 days approximately, it will become a habit. Just like sitting down in the evening every evening and binge watching is a habit, you can actually have really cool and healthy motivational movement habits as well.

So, if you can find those moments to get up and move throughout your day and keep doing it, it will become a habit. It’ll become part of your life. And here’s what the data from… We’ve worked in over seventy US corporations, here’s what the data from corporations show, it’s really great stuff, is once you’ve taken on one good habit and done it for 21 days, we call it the NEAT ripple effect, is a good movement habit will beget, will make another movement habit. And so, one becomes two, and all of a sudden two becomes four. And what happens is people who are sitters become people who are movers.

And people who become movers also influence their families, their kids, husbands, and wives, and friends to become movers as well. And so, there’s a NEAT ripple. But the trick, the trick, the trick is to think right now, today is today. I’m gonna get up and take control of my life and take that first step forwards or not. And if the answer is yes, do it now. In other words, Brett, what I’m saying is, if you can get it into your mindset, into your thinking that I’m gonna fight the chair, I’m gonna win this battle, you can actually do it.

Brett McKay: And what’s great, you offer suggestions on how you can do that. I think the trick is understanding, Okay, our social environment is pushing us to be sedentary. Everything is like, you do everything sitting down. And I think one trick is just, can I do this typically sedentary activity? Can I do it while moving somehow? So, you offer suggestions like, if you like to watch TV, get yourself a really cheap treadmill. You can find them on Amazon for 300 bucks now. They’re so cheap. And then just stick that in your television room. And while you’re watching your favorite show, just walk at one point one miles per hour on that treadmill. Or if you like playing video games, do the same thing. You can play a video game while you’re walking. Or like you said, if you take phone calls during work, don’t do that sitting down. Do that while you’re walking.

Dr. James Levine: You are a 100% correct. And I’m telling you, what’s really cool about this is the other thing I mentioned is once you’ve… And I will tell you now, 300 bucks for a treadmill in your house, that’s expensive these days. I mean, they’re coming in at a $100 now, or you can get a secondhand one, or you can get… People are throwing away their exercise bicycles. I mean, take it, refurbish it, put it in your TV room. And you’d be surprised that you can binge watch, I’m actually starting to re-watch Seinfeld again, I hate to tell you this, but I can binge watch Seinfeld gently cycling on my stationary bicycle.

It makes almost no noise and I’m getting just as much TV. And there is so much we can do if we put our mind to it. And the other thing, Brett, you mentioned is we sort of, society has put us in our chair. But the other thing to think about for a second is how we can change the society. Now, I don’t mean changing the world, let’s be serious, but how can I change the society I live in? So, next time if I’m dating, next time I choose a date on, I can’t remember the name of the website, whatever, where you’re swiping left and swiping right, I’m actually going to choose a date for somebody who also likes to go walking.

I’m going to sort of say, next time we all sit to come for my birthday, and for those of you listening, my birthday is November the 20th. Next, for all of you who are going to come to my birthday party, yeah, we’re going to have cake, you bet we are. But also, once we’ve done our cake, we’re also all going to go out for a walk together, we’re going to do a family walk. So, we actually have the opportunity to influence the micro society we live in, but we need to choose to do that. And it’s all part of the same thing, make that decision, take your first step, and the rest is going to flow from there.

Brett McKay: And one thing you point out in your book is that you work with a lot of patients who have had extra weight, and just by simply increasing the amount of NEAT in their lives, they’ve been able to lose weight, a lot of weight. They don’t even become serious gym goers, they’re just moving more during the day.

Dr. James Levine: A 100%. And so, yes, and if you like, there is the world of what I call testimonies, and this is fine, and I’m a 100% respectful. But as somebody with a science background, I’m actually more interested in the hardcore data from the scientific studies. And the scientific studies conducted in normal US office workers show that even in people who don’t want to lose weight, they will tend to lose weight and become more active. But in people who want to lose weight, people will start, if they activate their lives, they take on NEAT, are going to be losing 10 to 20 pounds slowly and gently, if you like, without breaking a sweat. And they’re gonna do that over six months, and then over the six months, the same.

And so, what’s really powerful about this is, Yes, 60% of the population may be dieting in any given year, but what’s really cool about NEAT is NEAT is going to help you keep off that excess body weight, and it’s going to nudge you forwards and forwards and forwards. And what’s important about this is you’re not gonna get a sports injury from NEAT, you’re not gonna have to pay a gym membership for NEAT, everyone can get up and move throughout their day without paying a penny for doing it. And what it’s gonna help with, for those people who want to lose weight, you don’t have to lose weight, even if you have excess body weight, you’re not obliged to. If you want to, this will help.

Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about the benefits of NEAT and weight loss, but you mentioned earlier, there’s other benefits to moving more throughout the day. How can NEAT improve metabolic health? We’re talking like how we regulate glucose.

Dr. James Levine: Oh, this is really, I hope we have enough time for this, Brett, but let me explain briefly. This is super cool. Experiments were done where healthy volunteers came onto a research centre, very, very carefully monitored, and their glucose from their blood was being monitored every 30 seconds. These individuals were given breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the metabolic unit in the research centre, and then were instructed to get on with their normal day. And that was, computer work for the morning, then lunch, computer work, and a bit of Facebook, and then dinner, and then evening time, Facebook, binge watching, and TV, okay?

And we measured their blood glucose every 30 seconds continuously throughout the day. And what actually happens is, when you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, your blood glucose climbs to a mountain and then slowly descends over a total period of about an hour and a half. After each of the three meals, that’s what happens. Then we said to people, we want you to do exactly the same day again. We’ll measure your glucose again. We’ll give you the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner again, but we want you to do one single thing different. After every meal, we want you to take a 15-minute walk or stroll at one and a half miles an hour. That’s literally strolling.

15 minutes after every meal. Now, as I mentioned, without the stroll, normal day, you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, your blood sugar, your blood glucose climbs to a mountain, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you add a 15-minute stroll, that’s it. The mountain becomes a hill. It literally halves the size of that blood glucose mountain. 15-minute stroll after each of your meals. The biggest predictor of Type 2 diabetes is the size of those mountains. So all of a sudden, for taking a 15-minute stroll after each of your meals, everyone listening can do this. You halve your blood glucose response to meals and potentially risk of Type 2 diabetes. What a win, win, win!

Brett McKay: Now, that is really powerful. Another thing you talk about is the benefit of NEAT to our mental health. I know a lot of people out there are struggling with their mental health. What effect can NEAT have on that?

Dr. James Levine: There has not been one clinical trial in depression prevention that includes a walking program. That hasn’t helped people. Many of us are susceptible to feeling blue. I am. Feeling low, feeling bad. Most people listening will know that when you’re feeling bad and you go for a walk, for a reason you quite can’t understand, you actually feel a little bit better. What’s really powerful are the data that show that if you actually sort of take on NEAT walking as part of your routine, that will actually help you feel brighter, smarter, and sort of more alive. All of us already sort of know this. We all know this. When you’re down, somebody says, let’s go for a walk, and you feel better.

This is actually a truth. And so for those of us who can take on a NEAT approach to life, not only is your sort of body going to be better, whether that’s with respect to obesity prevention or diabetes, blood pressure, whatever it may be, but actually you’re gonna feel brighter too. And what’s really cool is once you feel brighter and happier doing a little bit of walking, even after each of your meals, guess what? You’re gonna keep doing it and you’re gonna take on more stuff so you can feel even brighter and happier. And again, that’s what the data suggests.

Brett McKay: Another thing you’ve seen in your research and working with patients is that a lot of these patients that come to see you, they talk about, I’m just so tired all the time. And it seems weird because like, you’re just sitting around all day. Why would you be tired? But I think everyone has experienced how doing absolutely nothing can just be exhausting. And by incorporating some more light physical activity during your day, it’ll actually give you the physical energy you need to do the things you want to do in life.

Dr. James Levine: I think we all, again, know this to be a common truth, but Brett, that allows me to touch on one other thing, which is so important and this will not shock anybody. Sleep. Sleep is a critical component of this equation. It is absolutely critical. And the data on NEAT and sleep are fascinating. We brought people again onto our amazing research centers at Mayo Clinic. These are extraordinary places where people volunteer to do studies to help us understand what’s going on. And we brought them onto the research center. And we said, Have a good night’s sleep in your normal way.

Get used to our facilities. And people did. What we then did is we sleep restricted people. We said to people, you’re gonna sleep 30% less. We’re gonna wake you up. We’re gonna twiddle your toes. We’re gonna keep you awake. And my goodness, yes, you’re gonna get tired. And that’s exactly what happened. But here is what the data show. The data shows when you sleep restrict people, they eat more. We all know this. When you’re tired, this is me, by the way. Okay. This is me. When I’m tired, I eat more.

This is always the case. For some reason, you reach for the choc, you reach for the chips, whatever it may be, but you eat more. This is what happens when you sleep deprived. You’re feeling tired, you’re feeling pooped out, you’re noshing, you’re eating a few snacks here and there. But the one thing when you’re tired you don’t want to do, is to get up and go for a walk. When you’re fully rested and you’ve got good sleep, you get up and you feel, what’s the word we all use? Energized. That’s what we feel. And that energized means get up and go for a walk. Get up and do some cool stuff. Let’s do something fun today. And guess what? You think less about that food you’re going to lean on to deal with your tiredness.

So I fully understand that people may have two or sometimes three jobs. I totally get it. I totally do understand that there is tremendous stress at the moment and tremendous mental anguish. But if you can find a good method to get good sleep, whether that involves, for example, stopping your coffee at noon or starting to relax early in the evening so you’re ready for sleep, not stressing yourself out with text messages or arguments before you go to bed, whatever it may be, if you can find a method of getting good sleep, that is a critically important part of the NEAT equation.

Brett McKay: Well, I also think moving more can help you sleep better. I’ve noticed my own life. There’s this idea I’ve heard about sleep pressure. You have to build up some sleep pressure so your body wants to go to sleep. And one way you can do that is just moving more. I’ve had the best nights of sleep when I’ve had a really active day. I think the best night of sleep, I’ve been chasing this night of sleep for 20 years now is when my wife and I, we went to Rome. And you just walked. There’s, like, all day. You’re just walking hours on hours. And I remember we came back to our hotel and we just laid down and we just both fell asleep. We didn’t wake up until, like, 14 hours later, and we both felt that was the best night’s sleep.

And I think it’s because we just walk so much. And I noticed in the times where I don’t move a lot during the day, I have a hard time falling asleep.

Dr. James Levine: This is 100% correct, your body… If you remember earlier, Brett, we were talking about the parts of your brain that are sort of monitoring all of this, one question you’ve got to ask yourself is, Okay, I’ve now got my movement going, just as you say. You walked around Rome all day, you sort of met your NEAT goal set by your brain. What happens if you don’t? And I think a lot of people actually understand this, but haven’t necessarily thought about it the way you put it. So if I am sort of forced to sit in meetings all day long, and I assure you that’s often many of my days, you get home sort of feeling this sort of anxiety. This sort of tightness inside of you. And I don’t know about you, but I get this thing sort of like my thoughts, and I get frustrated and irritated much more than if I’d actually had an active day where I dissipated all of my energy. And I think the other thing that, again, many people relate to, when you’ve come back from work and it’s been a day that you’ve been in your chair, you haven’t been up, moving and so on and so forth, what’s one thing you do? You reach for a beer. Really, what that’s saying is I need an anesthetic. There’s too much pressure in my head. I need to anesthetize myself.

And so therefore, the complexity of getting a good night’s sleep absolutely relates to the need to burn off the energy that our body needs us to burn off. We’re designed to get up and move. If you suppress the human, the human doesn’t do well. We get really internally upset by that, and we need to move. So part of our argument is that by forcing people to be seated all day, it’s fundamentally unnatural to people, and they need to move just to function normally. And your day in Rome is illustrative of that.

Brett McKay: So we talked about some ways people can incorporate more NEAT into their lives. There’s an activity that you do sitting down. See if you can do that standing up or even walking. For people who want to incorporate more NEAT in their life, is there a goal they should shoot for? Like, what’s the minimum dose of NEAT that we need to get before we start seeing that benefit? Is it an hour of extra NEAT two hours? Is there steps? What have you found in your research?

Dr. James Levine: Yeah, I mean, this is a terrific question. There has been a huge vogue, as many people know, to buy various gadgets, to look at various watches and sort of monitor stuff. Now, if you’re somebody who loves monitoring stuff, go for it, enjoy it. That’s great. But what is actually the truth and again, when you study this in sort of normal folk, what you find is if you give people a monitoring device, they’ll use it for a short period of time, and it can be literally, I kid you not, days. And their use of that monitoring device will fall off almost exponentially, almost sort of like over a cliff face, and they’ll sort of put it into a drawer. And how many people listening today have exercise monitoring devices, wearable little things that are in their drawer that’s powered down, that’s unused? So my advice to people is to actually look at it completely differently.

If you love monitoring stuff, get the equipment. It’s great. If you’re going to take on for yourself a goal, I suggest you take on one goal, not 100 goals. One thing. What’s the one thing you’re going to do for the next few weeks, and let’s say for the sake of argument, is every Thursday, and this is as simple as it gets, every Thursday I have to do a conference call with central corporate where they talk about health and wellness, whatever it is. It’s a 40 minutes call every single week. I only have to listen to fulfill my obligations. So I’m going to do that walk and talk. That’s one thing I’m going to do every Thursday. Super simple. Actually, what I’m going to do is I’m going to have a little chart on my fridge, and every time I do it, I’m going to put a check mark against it until I’ve done it 21 times. Monitoring, as simple as it gets.

On the other hand, I’m going to be a different person. I’m going to say, you know what? My daughter loves the art stuff, and I live in Washington DC, where all the galleries are free at Smithsonian. So once a week, I’m going to go with my daughter and we’re going to stroll through the art gallery, and we’re going to do that together for two months. Now, honestly, do you need to put that on your fridge to remind yourself to go for a walk with your daughter in the art gallery?

No. What you want to do is to do it for three weeks and it becomes a habit between you and your daughter. And so what I suggest again, is be smart, what works for you. But pick something, find a way of monitoring it, and do it. And the last concept I’d like to share with you in this regard is the idea of rewards. Now, rewards are great, okay? They’re really, really cool. But again, you have to be smart. So giving yourself a reward to go to the mailbox and collecting your mail on foot every day, to me, honestly, sounds a bit silly. I’m not going to reward myself for collecting the mail. However, if my goal is to walk a half marathon, and I had this amazing patient who did this, she came into clinic in her wheelchair, and she sent me a photograph of her and the grandchildren when they walked a half marathon.

I kid you not, it was like, it blew my mind. Her reward was if she could walk a half marathon, she’d saved up enough money to go to South Dakota for a week. That was her reward and that was her goal. And she actually said to me, Actually, the reward was to do it. So I think if you can think of the idea of finding things that you want to do, finding a method to record it, and then finding a method to recognize yourself, pat yourself on the back, or have some sort of achievement recognition that you’re off to the races.

Brett McKay: I love it. So just find ways to move more. That’s it. Again, it’s not hard. It doesn’t have to be that hard. It could be as simple as standing up at work occasionally. It could be doing the walk and talk, something that I’ve done after reading your book, or we’ve done this for a long time as a family. When we park somewhere, we park the furthest away so we can walk there, take the stairs. Kind of becomes a game. Finding ways you can move more in an environment that is fighting for you to sit more. It’s kind of fun to be a rebel. I’m going to move more instead.

Dr. James Levine: Yeah, be a rebel for yourself. Do it. Get up and move.

Brett McKay: Well, James, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Dr. James Levine: Well, I mean, it’s fantastic. If people wish to go to the library and get the book, Get Up. It really summarizes the work we did in the lab. It’s, of course, available on our favorite online website as well. And that’s great. But also places like mayoclinic.com have really high quality information on the Internet. And so please please make a decision to get up and move today and learn more from these various resources and make it happen for yourself.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, James Levine, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. James Levine: It’s my pleasure as well. Thank you so much, Brett. I really enjoyed it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. James Levine. He’s the author of the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can do About It. Check out our show notes at aom.is/neat, where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com and while you’re there, sign up for our newsletter. We got a weekly edition and a daily edition. They’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what we’re doing at The Art of Manliness.

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