Exercise and Obesity: The Right Kind of Exercise is Important – Dr. James Levine and NEAT

In my nutrition and health class, students always ask about the role of structured exercise (done in a gym or at home on a treadmill, etc.) in treating obesity. I let them figure it out for themselves. I give them an assignment where they calculate their daily energy expenditure and I have them list their favorite activities/exercise and list the kilocalories (kcal) expended per hour during each activity. Then I have the students list their favorite snacks with the kcal each one has. The reaction to this assignment has been consistent every year for the past ten years: “I can’t believe how long I need to exercise to burn off the kcal in my favorite snack!” It is just too easy in today’s environment to eat excess kcal! The take home message from this assignment is that structured exercise is not a way to treat or prevent obesity, unless you have enormous amounts of time to spend in the gym (say 3-4 hours per day). I haven’t met anybody with that kind of time yet!

What I teach in my class is that structured exercise is important and necessary to: 1) keep coronary artery smooth muscle cells healthy so that they can dilate when your heart is called upon to pump extra blood; 2) keep ligaments and connective tissue strong and flexible so that you do not have injuries; 3) put stress on your bones to keep them dense and strong, and 4) keep skeletal muscles from dissolving away with age.

But exercise is very important in helping us maintain a healthy body weight. Dr. James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic has spent a good part of his career researching and promoting the role of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) in influencing a person’s body weight.

Dr. James A. Levine, Mayo Clinic

Dr. James A. Levine, Mayo Clinic

What is NEAT? NEAT is the energy we expend each day in every day activities such as walking, standing, cleaning the house, taking public transportation to work, walking the dog, standing instead of sitting, taking the stairs, and playing with the kids. Dr. Levine has used state of the art measuring devices in studies of people’s everyday activities, and he has determined that people who are able to maintain a healthy body weight expend approximately 2 hours more NEAT per day than people who have difficultly maintaining their weight. Why is NEAT more helpful in maintaining weight than structured exercise? Because we do NEAT more often! Most people who perform structured exercise regularly only do so about 4 hours per week. People who perform greater than average NEAT do so every day/7 days a week! On average, a person who expends a large amount of kcal in everyday activities will burn 500 more kcal per day than a person with a similar body type who does little NEAT per day. The reason for our lower levels of NEAT today are due to many reasons- jobs where we sit all day, no need to hand wash the clothes and hang them out to dry, driving to the supermarket instead of walking or having to hitch the horse to the buggy. The reasons are numerous because of all the work saving devices that have been introduced into modern day society.

Dr. James Levine is absolutely correct in his research and his scientifically based observations on the role of NEAT (i.e., the lack of it) in the obesity epidemic in the US. See his article through the link below!

How do we increase NEAT in our everyday lives?

It’s easy but hard. The first thing is to throw out the television set. There is nothing that causes you to sit and not move more than watching television. If you do not wish to part with your TV, then thrown out the couch and replace it with a treadmill. However, most people do not use their treadmill no matter what! Another way to increase NEAT is to walk to work and/or use public transportation. This will provide 30 to 90 min per day of exercise depending upon your commute circumstances. If it is impossible to commute from where you live – move! Another way to increase NEAT is to get a job where you need to walk around. Again, you need to be committed to getting that NEAT! If you do not want to change jobs, consider installing a treadmill desk in your office. In fact, there are directions on how to build your own treadmill desk on the Internet! And you can get exercise in the building process! There are numerous ways to increase NEAT in your life!

What about structured exercise? Is that important?

Yes, it is amazingly important because you still need the health benefits that I wrote about earlier in this post. Most important, you need to perform 4 hours of strenuous exercise per week to keep your heart muscles and coronary smooth muscle cells in good shape! Please see a few of the many publications by Dr. James Levine by clicking on the links below:

http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/41/9/558.long#global-tab-quality

http://atvb.ahajournals.org/content/26/4/729.long

http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jobe/2011/358205/

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