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Living Better: how increasing small movements can make a big difference

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When was the last time you moved around? Notice I did not say exercise. Most of us are well aware that working out, like going on a run, playing a sport, whatever it is, is good for your health. But it can be easy to overlook all the ways that we move during the rest of our day. As part of our series Living Better, Will Stone reports on how these small movements can make a big difference.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Doing the dishes, running up the stairs, bobbing your legs up and down. Welcome to NEAT, short for non-exercise activity thermogenesis.

JAMES LEVINE: It's the calories a person burns through their daily physical activity. All of the bits of activity that is NEAT, non-exercise activity thermogenesis.

STONE: Dr. James Levine pioneered this research while at the Mayo Clinic and now heads up the nonprofit Foundation Ipsen.

LEVINE: The fact that it is so many things in part explains why it's so difficult to study because how on earth do you measure everything?

STONE: Levine has picked apart the energetic cost of NEAT using body sensors and other technology in tightly controlled experiments. He explains that sitting up relatively still, maybe on the computer, only burns about 5- to 7% more calories than if you were lying down at rest. Fidgeting a lot can bring that up a bit. Standing bumps that up to about 10%.

LEVINE: And if I start to move around and, let's say, ironing or folding up clothes, I can move that to 15% more. If I start strolling at one, 1 1/2 miles an hour, which is literally the speed a person sort of goes shopping at, your metabolic rate increases not 5% for sitting, not 10% for standing - 100%.

STONE: This starts to give a sense of how seemingly trivial decisions to move accumulate over the course of the day and also how there can be enormous variation. Levine says NEAT levels can differ by up to 2,000 calories between people of the same size. And research underscores that computer-based societies could be getting a lot more NEAT.

LEVINE: People who are living in agricultural communities are literally moving three times more than even lean or overweight people in North America, just in the environments in which they live.

STONE: The point is not that Americans should ditch their desk jobs and technology. It's that many of us might naturally be moving two to four hours more each day in a different setting. Clearly, your job, where you live, your free time, many things shape NEAT. But there's evidence that biology plays a role too. In the late '90s, Levine studied what happened when people who were lean consumed 1,000 extra calories a day for two months. Weight gain varied considerably. Changes in NEAT predicted that.

LEVINE: People who have the capacity to burn off extra calories and remain thin are people who can switch on their NEAT.

STONE: So what exactly is being switched on? Cathy Kotz at the University of Minnesota was studying how a specific compound in the brain called orexin influences feeding behavior in animals. But she found it had another effect.

CATHY KOTZ: When we either give the animals more orexin or we stimulate their orexin neurons in the brain, it causes them to move more.

STONE: Kotz says differences in orexin help explain why certain animals in the same setting with the same food end up gaining weight while others don't. This extra physical activity parallels what we'd think of as NEAT.

KOTZ: Getting up more often and moving around more often, very similar to what our Apple watches try to do - right? - every now and again remind us, hey, you should stand up. You should move around. Orexin seems to do that kind of naturally.

STONE: While these studies haven't been done on humans, Kotz says it supports the idea that some people are predisposed to have higher NEAT. But she says this doesn't mean other people are destined to be sedentary.

KOTZ: I think that it can be overcome just by being conscious and aware of the fact that you do need to move more.

STONE: Tapping into this innate urge, these signals from our brain to move is often in conflict with our technology-dominated lifestyles. Colleen Novak studies NEAT at Kent State University and tends to think about the differences between her grandparents.

COLLEEN NOVAK: One of the grandparents lived on a farm and was constantly out doing things, digging out weeds. You just couldn't have them sit down. And then the other grandparent just preferred to chill and talk to us.

STONE: She explains that more than half of the energy we burn goes toward keeping our body functioning. Digesting and metabolizing food accounts for about another 10%.

NOVAK: That leaves the remaining 30, maybe 40% for all your activity.

STONE: Much of that is NEAT, even for people who exercise regularly. Novak says while ramping up NEAT on its own won't necessarily lead to weight loss...

NOVAK: Encompassing this NEAT into your daily life, that will nudge a person toward making it easier to maintain weight and not gain or not keep gaining.

STONE: It's not just about weight. Dr. Levine points out being sedentary, even without obesity, is associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, joint problems, even mental health issues. He sees innumerable ways to inject more NEAT into our lives. Going to work, he doesn't hunt for the closest parking spot. He finds one farther away and walks 20 minutes.

LEVINE: And then I walk back at the end of the day and take my car and go home. That's a 40-minute walk, 100 calories for free.

STONE: He says you can turn a chair-bound meeting into a walking one. Instead of shopping online, go to the store where you have to stroll and pick things up. Even if you're watching TV, try pacing around during commercials.

LEVINE: If you can immediately today develop an intention to convert some of your sitting time into walking time, all of a sudden, A will build to B, step one will lead to step two.

STONE: Soon enough, he says, it'll actually become easier to find more minutes in your day to move, even just a little. Will Stone, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON PAAK SONG, "TWILIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Will Stone