The Neat Way to Lose Weight: What is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis?

Jake Newby

| 3 min read

An older woman rides her bicycle to work.
Taking the stairs instead of the elevator can be pretty neat. So can working in your garden and playing with your pet.
Literally, these examples of calorie-burning activities that aren’t related to basic biological functions or exercise are categorized as “NEAT,” an acronym for non-exercise activity thermogenesis.

What is NEAT exercise?

NEAT is the energy we expend when we are not sleeping, eating, or engaging in exercise. It is unrelated to our basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories burned as our body performs basic life-sustaining functions (like breathing and blood circulation).
Think of NEAT as physically active movements that don’t rise to the level of the kind of sustained physical effort we exert while working out. More examples include walking the dog, cleaning the kitchen, and playing board games. Even standing at a desk instead of sitting at one classifies as NEAT.

How does NEAT contribute to weight loss?

A 2018 Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry study concluded that NEAT is a “highly variable component of daily total energy expenditure and a low level of NEAT is associated with obesity.” In other words, NEAT contributes to weight loss by increasing energy expenditure. Even extremely light physical activity burns more calories than lying on the couch doing nothing at all.
Studies over the years have reinforced how important NEAT is in attaining a healthy body composition. The number of calories the average adult burns through NEAT can vary drastically. Those who work in physically taxing fields – like construction, farming – can rack up about 2,000 NEAT calories per day. For reference, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025, the average adult woman burns roughly 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day, while the average adult man burns 2,000 to 3,000.
We’re not all elite-level athletes. Not everyone can devote hours upon hours a day to physical training. But NEAT can be a sneaky way to lose weight – or at least protect against weight gain – especially for those of us who live a mostly sedentary lifestyle.

Ways to Increase NEAT

Some of the examples above are excellent ways to incorporate NEAT into our daily lives. Here are a few more:
  • Doing household chores.
  • Fidgeting by rolling your ankles in circles while sitting at work, or shuffling side to side while standing in line at a store.
  • Parking farther away from a store and walking, even if you notice a better parking spot.
  • Standing instead of sitting at different points of the day.
  • Taking “walk breaks” at the office during work.
  • Walking or cycling instead of driving to walking-distance destinations. 
  • Walking or pacing while talking on the phone.
Wearing a smartwatch to track your steps and calories can be an excellent way to promote your NEAT. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) and Blue Care Network (BCN) members can get discounts on Fitbit devices by logging into their member accounts and checking out the Blue365 member discounts.
Photo credit: Getty Images
MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association