People + Process = Performance

Why You and Your Company Need to be “NEAT Freaks”!


Have you ever been accused of being a “NEAT freak”?  No, I don’t mean neat freak in that you are the type of person who has everything in its right place, put away and nicely organized.  I mean the other NEAT freak—the kind that does NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) throughout the day.  Is NEAT a new term to you?  Would you be interested in knowing how NEAT may impact the health and wellness of you, your family members and your co-workers? Is NEAT something that employers should be considering when designing the work environment? Is NEAT by Design more effective than weight loss wellness programs?  If those questions have intrigued you, read on.  You will learn just what NEAT is, the significance it may have on obesity and how employers can use the concept to design workplaces that build in NEAT intuitively and seamlessly into the workday.


I must confess that I’ve been accused by my mother for being a NEAT freak since childhood, before the term NEAT was even invented.  As a little kid I would fidget all the time.  Whether sitting church or being a guest for dinner at least one foot would be tapping the floor or I’d shift my posture frequently.  She would reprimand me to “stop it” and “settle down”.  I’d stop my tapping my foot for a few seconds and then start right back up.  I have to admit I’ve never stopped being a fidgeter except now I’m more mindful of when and when not to do so!  As I’m writing this I am standing at my computer (I have a sit-stand workstation which is almost always at standing height) and I’m weight shifting and sometimes tapping one toe or heel on the floor.  Doing NEAT has always come natural to me.  So, let’s define NEAT.


What is NEAT (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis)?

First of all, thermogenesis means production of heat by a metabolic process, for humans it is calorie burning. NEAT is calorie burning that is not related to structured exercise.  A structured exercise routine may consist of a going on the elliptical machine for 60 minutes, running 5 miles, doing a weight-lifting regimen or some other activity that is undertaken specifically to expend energy.  A non-exercise thermogenic activity burns calories but it not formal exercise.   NEAT is simply engaging in activities of daily life such as shuffling a few steps from your desk to the water cooler, standing up during a meeting instead of sitting, taking the stairs or parking your car farther away from the front of the store.  It is also fidgeting, i.e. shifting positions frequently, tapping your foot, flexing random muscles and rocking in your chair. 


NEAT is a somewhat unconventional way of thinking about exercise and calorie expenditure that has gained popularity in research over the last few years.  Just how substantial is the amount of energy that we burn from simple daily activities?  Is it feasible to increase our NEAT to burn more calories?  Has there been a change in the amount of NEAT that people performed over the past several decades?  Does NEAT have a role in obesity prevention and intervention?  The answer to those questions is the focus of studies that have recently been done or are in the process of being done.  NEAT-pioneer researcher James Levin from the Mayo clinic and his team done and continue to do investigations into these concepts. 


The answer to the question on whether the amount of NEAT done by individuals has changed over the years is clearly yes when one looks at history and the inventions that have made life easier, but by default have reduced NEAT.  For example, elevators have replaced the use of stairs, snow blowers have eliminated the need to shovel snow, and dishwashers eliminate manual labors of dishwashing.  According to Dr. Levine, NEAT activities account can account for 100-400 plus calorie expenditure per day.  If one burns 350 calories/day by doing NEAT, that adds up to nearly 37 pounds/year!  Levine believes the caloric deficit by not performing NEAT could potentially account for the entire obesity epidemic.


One NEAT study

Dr. Levine published his research in 2006 on “Interindividual Variation in Posture Allocation: Possible role in Human Obesity.”  Here is a summary of the study: (emphasis added)


The pilot study involved comparisons of two distinct groups—10 lean participants and 10 obese participants.  All subjects were self-proclaimed “couch potatoes” who did not engage in any type of formal exercise before or during the study.  Each subject was fitted with a physical activity monitoring system that collected data on both body position (standing, sitting, and lying) and movement every half second.  The subjects wore these monitoring systems continuously for 10 days.


Upon completion of the study, the researchers found that obese subjects were seated an average of 164 minutes longer each day than the lean subjects. Both lean and obese subjects spent approximately the same amount of time lying down.  Additionally, total body movement was negatively correlated with fat mass—if obese participants had the same posture allocation (distribution of time sitting, standing, and lying) as the lean participants, they would have burned an extra 269 to 477 calories per day.


These results led the researchers to form another question—Do obese people sit more and move less simply because they are obese?  To investigate this idea, the researchers did another pilot study and recruited 7 of the original 10 obese subjects to undergo supervised weight loss for 8 weeks.  Meanwhile, 9 of the original 10 lean subjects plus one additional lean subject underwent supervised overfeeding for the purposes of weight gain for 8 weeks.  After 8 weeks, the obese participants lost an average of 17.6 pounds and the lean participants gained an average of 8.8 pounds. Each participant was then refitted with the physical activity monitoring system to collect data for 10 more days.


Interestingly, the results remained the same—both lean and obese groups maintained close to their original amounts of posture allocation and movement.  This led researchers to surmise that interindividual differences in posture allocation are biologically determined.  That is, some people inherently move less and perform less NEAT each day than others.


(I must add that this study has a major caveat due to the small sample size of just 10 participants in each group.  More studies are needed to confirm the findings.) 



The Potential Impact of NEAT on Health & Wellness

Is this the lack of NEAT a key piece in the pursuit to determine why some people are more likely to become obese?  Proponents of NEAT say yes, and that this information can be used for obesity interventions.  Educating people on NEAT and on the easy things they can do to increase NEAT to help them burn more calories and prevent weight gain or assist weight loss may encourage them to add simple changes to their lifestyle. 


Here are a few examples that show the impact of NEAT:

·        Some popular weight-loss programs promise that users can lose weight without exercising. However, unless you are an elite athletes or an exceptionally active person, the majority of calories that the average individual burns are actually from non-exercise activities anyway.  That is, a 180-pound adult who burns 2500 kilocalories per day and runs five miles daily (at a six minute per mile pace) is burning 750 calories at each running session, according to the Health Discovery Calorie Counter, but the majority of energy that the individual expends (the remaining 1750 calories) are from NEAT activities.

·        A 1 hour walking meeting will burn 150-200 calories vs. 25 calories for sitting

·        Standing and pacing at your desk while taking phone calls will burn 100-130 calories vs. 25 for sitting

·        Park five blocks away from building and take the stairs to your floor will burn 80-120 calories vs. 15 for parking by building and taking the elevator

·        Standing at your desk for 2.5 hours/day for 10 days will result in an additional 3500 calories burned which equates to 1 pound.  A person who did this has the potential of losing 25 pounds/year or preventing a 25 pound weight gain, depending on one’s perspective.


All of the small activities that we perform everyday add up calorie-wise over the weeks, months and years.  The more active people are outside of formal exercise, the more likely they will be to easily maintain their weight and/or lose weight.  This can mean the difference between obesity along with the negative health consequences that go along with it, or health.


Incorporating NEAT Into The Work Environment

The importance of incorporating NEAT into the workplace is imperative for employers who have employees with sedentary positions. Building in NEAT activities into the natural course of the workday provides benefits to both the employer and employee.  The employee benefits have been described previously in regards to weight control and the positive health effects associated with it.  Healthier employees benefit employers in many ways including minimizing absences and presenteeism, greater productivity, and controlling healthcare costs.  Employers frequently offer wellness programs to their employees in hopes of mitigating healthcare costs.  However, these programs are voluntary and rely on employee participation.  Because of the voluntary nature of these programs, employers have resorted to offering incentives to increase participation and change behavior.  Instead of “bribing” employees I’d like to suggest an opposite approach—using workplace design to bring about the desired behavior.  The key is to use human factors to in facility and task design that automatically builds in NEAT instead of hoping employees change their behavior and do NEAT on their own. 


Before we look at examples there is one other potential factor that employers should be considered and that is the effect of Lean on the opportunities for NEAT.  During the past several years employers have concentrated on using Lean to reduce waste in their work streams.  One aspect of Lean is to reduce wasted time such as the time employees take to get tools, equipment, etc.  This includes removing steps (distances) that employees have to take to get things.  Is it possible to Lean too much?  Have we taken away the opportunities for NEAT to occur?  Have employers gone too far in their quest for efficiency that it has become detrimental to the health of employees?  These are questions employers and Lean professionals such as myself need to consider.  The work needs to be designed so risk for injury and error are kept to a minimum but does it have to be done to the point where employees don’t need to move much as all to do their job.  There needs to be a balance between having everything at the point of human use where very little or no steps are needed and where things are too far away requiring truly wasted time and effort. 


Facility Design

The layout of the facility on the outside and the inside can influence how much NEAT opportunity is readily available.  The location of the parking areas can add or take away valuable walking distances.  Having sidewalks or walking paths around the building as well as designated indoor walking routes can encourage additional walking no matter what the weather.  Having common areas, such as break rooms, meeting rooms and cafeterias located in an area that requires more steps would be a natural, intuitive way to increase NEAT. 


Common Area Design

Think about all of the common areas where employees gather, such as break rooms, meeting rooms, cafeterias and utility rooms/spaces (where printers and multi-function devices are located). We talked about the location of these in facility design.  Now let’s consider the design of these areas themselves.  Are these spaces designed for and/or encourage people to stand?  Are there standing height counters in the cafeteria or break rooms?  Do employees have printers at their workstation or do they have to go to a central utility room?  It may be nice, convenient for them to have their own printer but does that take away an easy opportunity for NEAT?  In meetings, the sense of peer pressure and culture may keep employees who want to stand from standing. Designating certain meeting rooms for standing meetings (less than an hour) would take away the feeling of going against the “norm”.  The tables in these rooms could be at standing height so people could place their papers, laptops, etc. on them just as they do for sitting meetings. 


Individual Workstations

The majority of these are computer workstations. These could be in an office setting but they could just as easily be in an industrial, manufacturing or laboratory setting.  The traditional model has been to design these workstations with a desk fixed at a sitting height and a sitting height task chair.  This design basically forces individuals to stay seated throughout their workday.  This is especially true for those whose work is strictly on the computer, with very little or no use of printers/documents, few meetings and little use of the phone.  An alternative is to provide a sit-stand workstation in which the individual can alternate their posture as they choose.  This type of workstation should be designed first with standing in mind with the possibility of sitting.  The purpose is to make standing as comfortable, if not more so than sitting.  This will, by default, lead the individual to stand a greater time of their day compared to a workstation that is designed with sitting first and standing as an afterthought. 


All of the mentioned design changes above automatically increase the NEAT done by the individual throughout their workday.  Through design, the individual is intuitively increasing their movement and alternating their posture throughout the day.  This is not only for burning more calories but should also result in less strains and discomfort as no static posture is sustained for any length of time.  This produces an hypothesis that by increasing NEAT, employers should realize a savings in healthcare as well as workers compensation.  This is what I call NEAT by Design instead of relying on voluntary and incentivized behavior change by traditional wellness programs.  Which do you think is more effective and sustainable?  It should be clear that NEAT by Design™ automatically includes all employees throughout their workday, every day vs. employees who choose to participate, may do some NEAT activities initially and then stop once the fad ends.



It seems the average individual misses dozens of opportunities to engage in NEAT exercises and the obesity epidemic is partly the result. Using the simple principles of NEAT employers and individuals can build in simple activities into their day that naturally fit into their busy schedules.  Such measures may seem trivial; however, the long term impact could be quite substantial financially and health-wise. 


As a born fidgeter, NEAT is wonderful news and gives me great satisfaction to know I wasn’t being a “bad” child growing up, I just was ahead of my time!  NEAT is an exciting step in the right direction, and the thought that weight gain can be impacted by a few extra paces and foot taps a day is pretty, well—neat!


For simple, quick ideas and help in incorporating NEAT by Design into your workplace, please contact us.  We’d be glad to help you and your employees become NEAT Freaks!





·        Levine, James. “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.” Mayo Clinic. 2010

·        Vaccariello, Liz. "7 Easy Ways to Lose Weight Without Starving or Breaking a Sweat." Prevention. 2010

·        Levine, J.A., Eberhardt, N.L., and Jensen, M.D., Role of Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis in Resistance to Fat Gain in Humans. Science, 8 January 1999, pp. 212-214

·        Levine, J. A., Vander Weg, M., Hill, J., et al. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis:, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, 26.729. 

·        Levine, J. A. and Yeager, S., Move a Little, Lose A Lot.  New York, NY: Random House, 2009