Mindfulness + NEAT: 2 unexpected keys to finally getting enough exercise

09/21/2016 11:43 am ET Updated Sep 21, 2016

Confession: I haven’t exercised regularly in a year. Sure, I’ll go to a yoga class here and there and sometimes will go on a really short jog, but I don’t adhere to a regular exercise regimen. And I don’t feel guilty about it. In fact, I feel pretty great! As an ex-collegiate competitive track and cross country athlete, I can’t say I feel grossly out of shape or that my figure has significantly changed since my college glory days. What's inspiring my new movement perspective? Two things: the science of NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) and the mindfulness research of Ellen Langer. Let me explain.

In our culture, there is a prevalent myth: physical movement doesn’t contribute to your health and fitness unless it happens in a gym as “formal exercise”. Yet in cultures known as hot spots of longevity or health (check out Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones book for more), there is rarely an overt concept of exercise. Rather, movement is integrated into daily living as a necessary, utilitarian part of life--opposite of our sedentary or, at best, “actively sedentary” culture. The regular exercisers among us likely fall into the actively sedentary status: you get your daily recommended exercise but are mostly sedentary for the rest of the day. For example, someone who goes to the gym for 45 minutes in the morning but sits at a desk job the rest of the day. We now know this single bout of movement in a sea of sitting doesn’t cut it. Sobering new evidence shows higher amounts of daily sitting are associated with greater risk of all-cause mortality (even if you exercise). With new emphasis on the dangers of sitting for uninterrupted periods of time, scientists are finally studying the importance of “smaller” forms of movement that break up long stretches of sedentarism throughout the day. In the literature, these smaller movements are known as Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT.

How would your daily life change if you knew reducing sitting and increasing NEAT might be more vital to your health than engaging in formal exercise? I’ll talk more about how to transform your movement routine at the end of this article.

Beyond NEAT, my other movement inspiration comes from the mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer. She concisely defines mindfulness as the simple act of actively noticing things resulting in increased health, competence, and happiness. Langer studies how our perceptions and beliefs (which can be changed with mindful awareness) directly impact our physiology. Her work quantifies the power of the mind-body connection by illustrating how our perception impacts everything from blood sugar levels, the aging process, and potentially cancer remission states. A powerful study she conducted with hotel maids tested the physiological impact of the perception of whether something “counted” as exercise. Initially, most of the hotel maids reported they didn’t exercise regularly. Langer took several measures of their fitness levels which concurred that most had the markers of a sedentary lifestyle. She and her colleagues then told half the maids that, in fact, their job duties, such as cleaning rooms, scrubbing toilets, and vacuuming, actually exceeded the surgeon general’s recommendation of a half-hour of physical activity daily. In other words, they were told their cleaning activities “counted” as exercise. The other half of the maids served as a control group. A month later, researchers retested the biomarkers (weight, blood pressure) of both groups. The control group’s markers had stayed the same, but the group that now believed themselves to be regular exercisers had lost weight and significantly reduced their blood pressure without changing their level of physical activity! For in-depth details on this study, check out this New York Times article.

So how can these two fascinating bodies of work improve your fitness routine?

First, radically expand your definition of exercise to include and prioritize NEAT: all-day, low-impact movement.This will minimize the harmful effects of sitting and allow you to meet your daily movement requirement more easefully.

Second, be mindful of the fact that all movement “counts as exercise”. This awareness means you’ll be more likely to take the stairs, change up your commute, and seize every opportunity to move. Plus, your belief in its effectiveness actually improves its measurable physiological benefits.

Want to revolutionize your exercise routine? Take these 4 steps.

1. Change your mindset to recognize all forms of movement count toward greater health and energy, not just “formal exercise”. Start seizing every opportunity to move, no matter how small, with the knowledge that it’s significantly contributing to your health. Challenge yourself to move as often as possible throughout your entire day.

2. Take movement breaks. To minimize the risk associated with extended periods of sitting, make sure you’re taking a movement break at least every 25 minutes. Set an alarm at first to solidify the habit. Or download an app like Move to remind you to take a movement break at regular intervals. Even just standing up and sitting back down has been shown to reduce damage. Everything counts!

3. Rethink furniture. At the very least, occasionally sit on the floor. If you’re feeling hardcore, consider getting rid of some of your furniture, forcing you to floor sit. Use bolsters and pillows to make it comfortable. Floor sitting basically allows you to get the benefits of a yoga class (diverse joint configurations, stretching and shifting) while just hanging out. When you get up off the floor, try to do it using as little support as possible. It turns out the ability to get up and down off the floor without using your hands, arms, or knees to help boost you is a pretty accurate predictor of life expectancy. Work this skill daily by conscious floor sitting, paying particular attention to working on the ability to spring up and down without support. Check out Katy Bowman’s furniture-free home or this badass guide to going furniture free for inspiration.

4. Walk a lot! Measuring your steps is one of the best ways to encourage all-day movement. Walking is the key movement our bodies evolved to do, and there are myriad consequences when we don’t get our daily intake of walking. Aim for at least 10,000 steps a day. If you’re not already measuring your steps via your iPhone or pedometer, I can’t recommend this highly enough. For a free option, I love the app Moves.

Take a look at your daily routines. How can you add more simple movements throughout your day? Can you change your environment to ensure you’ll move more? Can you rework your perception to acknowledge that any mini-movements throughout your day truly count? With a little bit of awareness and planning, you can increase the effectiveness of your daily life and decrease the risks of common behavior. Happy moving!!

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