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Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: What It Is + Why It's Essential For Cellular Energy

Molly Maloof, M.D.
January 31, 2023
Molly Maloof, M.D.
Medical Doctor
By Molly Maloof, M.D.
Medical Doctor
Molly Maloof. M.D. is passionate about extending healthspan through her medical practice, personal brand, entrepreneurial and educational endeavors. Dr. Molly Maloof provides health optimization and personalized medicine to high achieving entrepreneurs, investors, and technology executives.
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January 31, 2023
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"Non-exercise activity thermogenesis" is a fancy way of describing the energy you expend to do everything during the day that is not sleeping, eating, or purposeful exercise (like sports and running or gym workouts). NEAT is achieved1 by just walking around, running to catch the bus, doing yard work, cleaning, even fidgeting. This activity can add up significantly throughout the day.

You may often hear that exercise, while good for you, doesn't impact weight loss much. That's true, but what does impact weight loss is NEAT activity. The reason is that how you move throughout the day contributes to a lot more energy usage than a single exercise session. When you move, your mitochondria get the signal to produce more energy, not just during your exercise time but all day long.

Also, NEAT counteracts the hazardous effect of being sedentary. Moving throughout the day uses up the ATP your mitochondria are producing and minimizes a buildup of that cellular exhaust (ROS) that is a byproduct of energy production. Doing NEAT activities is like opening the garage door to let the exhaust fumes out and taking the car out for a drive. We want our "car" to be driving around (moving, living), not sitting in the garage. We need to use our fuel.

The connection between moving and eating.

Spontaneous movement isn't necessarily spontaneous. It's an instinct based on energy intake. The natural human (and animal) tendency is to move more in response to eating more and to move less in response to eating less.

The problem is that we have overridden this instinct because of how easy it is to overeat and how easy it is not to move in our current culture, but you can start to counter this mismatch between movement and energy intake by purposefully moving more. If you never sit for long periods of time, moving your body at least every 30 minutes or so throughout the day, you can get back into sync with your appetite cues.

Call NEAT exercise

Walking around the house doing housework or having a physical job is technically a source of NEAT, but if you think of it as exercise, you may actually get even more benefit, according to research by Stanford psychologist Alia Crum, Ph.D. In her study, a group of housekeepers working in hotels were told that their jobs counted as exercise and met the criteria for an active lifestyle. A control group was not told this. The group that was told their jobs counted as exercise burned more energy and got fitter than the control group. Think of your NEAT activities as exercise and you may get even more benefit from them.

Here are some more simple ways to increase your NEAT. All of these will add to your daily step count and fuel usage, sometimes significantly:

  • Move more at home: Cook meals from scratch, clean more vigorously, do yard work.
  • Reduce your screen time: Set limits for television and computer time. You could require yourself to get your steps in before turning on the TV.
  • Move during your media time: Get up and walk around, fold laundry, do situps and pushups, or work out while watching TV or listening to podcasts. Jog in place during commercials—it might look ridiculous, but it can really help you get your steps in.
  • Walk more: Walk around when you're on the phone (this is what Bluetooth headphones are for). Walk to do errands rather than drive, when possible.
  • Move on your breaks: Between classes, on coffee breaks, or whenever you need to stand up and stretch, get up and walk around instead of sitting and scrolling or checking your email.
  • Get up earlier: Studies show2 that people in midlife who get up earlier tend to walk 20 to 30 more minutes than people who stay up later and sleep in.
  • Be inefficient: Bring your grocery bags in one at a time. Take things up or downstairs to put them away one at a time.
  • Move after meals: Make a habit of walking for 15 minutes after every meal.
  • Move for creativity: Walk around while brainstorming or thinking through a problem—research shows that walkers are 81% to 100% more creative than sitters.
  • Socialize on the go: Take a walk with a friend instead of sitting and eating or drinking. Get together with friends for activities like group workouts or outdoor playdates with kids.
  • Walk the dog: People who have dogs tend to get more steps during the day. One study showed that dog owners walked 22 minutes more and took 2,760 more steps each day than people without dogs. Dog owners are also four times more likely3 to meet the physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week.
  • Employ the three-for-thirty rule: Set your smartwatch or phone to remind you to move for three minutes every 30 minutes while working.
  • Park far away from the entrance: Even at the grocery store, park at the back of the parking lot
  • Move at your desk: Swivel your chair, twist your torso, stretch your arms. Get up and jump up and down, and do some squats, wall sits, and planks.

From the book THE SPARK FACTOR by Dr. Molly Maloof. Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Molly Maloof. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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Molly Maloof, M.D. author page.
Molly Maloof, M.D.
Medical Doctor

Molly Maloof. M.D. is passionate about extending healthspan through her medical practice, personal brand, entrepreneurial and educational endeavors. Dr. Molly Maloof provides health optimization and personalized medicine to high achieving entrepreneurs, investors, and technology executives. Since 2012, she has worked as an advisor or consultant to more than 50 companies in the digital health, consumer health, and biotechnology industries. For three years she taught a pioneering course on healthspan in the Wellness Department of the Medical School at Stanford University before launching her own company, inspired by her unique philosophy of health.

Dr. Maloof is on the frontier of personalized medicine, digital health technologies, biofeedback assisted lifestyle interventions, psychedelic medicine, and science-backed wellness products and services. Her company Adamo Bioscience is working on sexual health optimization.