The Surprising New Way to Stay Fit -- Without Exercise

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Story Updated: Dec 26, 2013

If getting fit is one of your new year's resolutions, there's good news: It's easier than you think to do it.

A stack of new research shows that you don't need to spend hours at the gym at an "I'm-killing-myself" pace to stay in tip-top shape. Mini bursts of moderate activity may actually be a more effective way to lose weight or stay in tip-top shape.

That's NEAT! We don't mean "neat" as in cool, but NEAT as in "non-exercise activity thermogenesis." NEAT is scientific shorthand for everyday movements, like standing, bending, walking, toe-tapping, washing dishes, folding laundry. Basically, it's any physical movement, or calorie burning, other than exercise.

How NEAT Works

Dr. James Levine, a Mayo Clinic researcher is one of the world's leading proponents of NEAT and the author of the book Move a Little, Lose a Lot: New Neat Science Reveals How to Be Thinner, Happier and Smarter. Levine says that the average person can burn an extra 350 calories a day -- enough to drop 3 pounds a month -- just by adding little spurts of activity into their daily life. Everything counts, like taking a 30-minute walk at lunch, pacing while you're on the phone, marching in place for a few minutes while watching TV, standing as you text, running around the yard with your dog. Doing anything, in other words, but sitting.

"If a person just gets off her bottom and stands up," says Levine, "so much muscle activity is involved that your metabolism spikes immediately." Avoiding long stretches of inactivity has many other health benefits, too, from improving your mood to improving your cholesterol.

Why 'Easy' Exercise Is Actually Your Best Bet
Consider this: Intense exercise can actual backfire when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and healthy habits. In a recent study, a team of Danish researchers found that participants who worked out at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes a day actually lost more pounds that those who exercised vigorously for 60 minutes a day. In 13 weeks, the heavy-duty exercisers dropped 5 pounds; the take-it-easy exercisers lost 7 pounds with half the exertion.

Mark Blegen, Ph.D., an exercise researcher in St. Paul, Minn., says that's likely because the intense exercisers felt they had a free pass to eat whatever they wanted and turn into couch potatoes for the rest of the day. The people who worked out for half a time, on the other hand, kept moving and watched their diet. "When you've worked out for only 30 minutes, you tell yourself, consciously or not, I'm going to make an effort to do more throughout the day," says Blegen.

Get Started With NEAT Today
If you're serious about boosting your NEAT, an activity monitor can help you track your movements and inspire you to take an extra walk around the block or choose the stairs over the elevator. Look for one that measures not just steps, but overall physical activity. And, remember, less really may be more when it comes to the most effective way to stay in shape!

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