Friday, June 22, 2007

Get Your NEAT On

Okay, you probably didn't think you'd get lifestyle advice here at the The Penny Dreadful, but Whitney told me I could write about anything at all and I've been working on a nonfiction proposal about NEAT (to be explained later) all week long and it's on my mind. And I might add, it's a very relevant topic for you because I'm assuming you (like me) spend the majority of your waking hours parked on your bum in front of your computer.

You (like me) are probably sitting at this very moment.

Well the NEAT book I'm helping birth is by a scientist named Jim Levine who runs a lab out of the Mayo clinic and he's been studying obesity and metabolism since he was nine. Yes, nine. He was (it might be obvious) a very curious young boy and luckily his parents left him alone to build an aquarium for snails. He wanted to know whether snails moved in a straight lines or whether they zig zagged, so he woke himself up every half an hour all night long to chart their progress. He did this for months. I can't remember whether they went straight or zig zagged and it doesn't really matter. What matters is that Jim was obsessed with how living creatures move. He kept obsessing about movement into his teen years, through a PHd and an MD and right up until now. And lately he's been in the news because he's got a very simple and elegant and yet revolutionary theory about why we are all so damn heavy, sluggish and depressed (how many people do you know on Prozac?).

It turns out that it all boils down to NEAT - Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Now this is just a fancy word all of our movements large and small throughout the day. It's about how many calories we burn just living - climbing stairs, chewing gum, tapping our toes, necking (love that word), etc. It doesn't include exercise. Jim argues that in the past generation or two, we've lost 1000 calories of NEAT per day which equals pounds and pounds of fat every year. In earlier generations, people stayed effortlessly lean by just living! But now we're literary chained to our desks and it's killing us.

Jim argues that it's in our DNA to move, we evolved to move, our brains literally get high off of movement. Einstein thought up his theory of relativity while riding his bike. I'm sure more than one of you has come up with the perfect ending to your latest story while taking a walk. This is no accident. The brain creates while the body moves. One of the most striking images in Jim's book is an MRI of the brain of a sitting person verses a standing person. When a person simply stands, his or her brain lights up. It's there on the MRI in black and white.

Through very cool experiments using specially designed underwear which tracked the every movement and twitch of the people in the study, Jim has discovered the difference between the lean and the fat among us. It's not food. It's not exercise. It's NEAT. The difference between heavy Harry and lean Lawrence is about two and a half hours of NEAT per day. This is good news for all of us because it means if we can figure out a way to be more active for two and a half hours per day, we can stay lean. He's not talking about going to the gym or going on a diet. He's simply talking about moving more within the framework of your day. I love this because I loathe the gym. I pay every month. I never go. And I love eating, too.

Still, how do we do this? Well, he's got a lot of ideas, but one of the neatest ideas (and this will sound crazy at first) is a walking desk he designed. Tired of his own sendentary life, Jim decided to create his own desk. He went out and bought a treadmill, then he fashioned a desk on top of it. He does all of his email and phone calls now while walking a mile per hour. When he first tried it, he thought that he would be exhausted at the end of the day, but, in fact, he had more energy than ever. Since then, he's piloted versions of this desk at Fortune 500 companies and found that the people who try it, never want to go back to sitting. These desks are being mass produced and launched this summer.

In any case, it's food for thought. Since working with Jim, I find myself saying to my kids or my husband "let's get our NEAT in." I'm trying to make myself more NEAT by gardening, doing house projects I've been dreading, walking at least an hour a day and so on. Before I cram a donut into my pie hole, I ask myself if I've moved enough to earn it. And, I have to say, I do feel much better. My friend Judy, a professor at MIT, has been living this way all of her life (she thinks nothing of walking from Belmont to MIT, for example). She shrugs her shoulders and tells me that this is all common sense. I know she's right. But we are so far out of whack, we have so competely lost sight of how our bodies are meant to function (it's like we're trying to heat a house with an air conditioner), that this feels like a revolution to me. As soon as Jim's walking desks are on the market, I'll be in line (assuming I can cough up the dough - I have no idea what the cost will be), so if you call me, you might well hear the slight buzz of my treadmill as we talk...

That's all my proselytizing for tonight. I'll just end by saying: It's Friday night! Get off your ass and go dancing:)

Eve Bridburg


The Writers' Group said...

Eve, at first I thought your latest project was about being neat. Since I LOVE cleaning, I was pretty excited (yes, I'm quirky, I know). But Jim's created a desk where I can walk (another favorite activity) and write? Please ask if he needs another guinea pig. If not, how can I get my hands on this book now?!


Sue said...

Eve, this is fascinating. My friend is convinced that when he became less "twitchy" he put on weight. He's always saying the two are related. Looks like he's right!

You've also got me thinking about snails. Woah. I might have to start watching them myself...

Grub Street said...

Amy, the book isn't available yet. In fact, we're just getting ready to sell the proposal. I'll let you know when I know more about when it will be in the stores.

I'm sure you'll read about the desks once they get launched at the end of July. They are bound to get a lot of press.

Sue, thanks for reading. And yes, twitching is part of it! People who are natural fidgeters are leaner in general than others. Every little movement counts... even tapping your fingers.

Okay, it's a beautiful day. I'm off to get some NEAT. Enjoy the day.


Lisa Marnell said...

Unlike my friend and writer's group peer, Amy (see above), I cringe at the word neat, until I read further.

Common sense that isn't common - excellent idea for a book.

Well, time to get off my duff. Does baking cookies count?


Grub Street said...


Yes, making cookies does count. That's what's so great about NEAT. Anything you make from scratch requires more energy and movement than cracking open a box of oreos. And every little movement counts.... Yum. I hope they turned out well:)


Jane said...

This is great. I've always suspected that NEAT (though I didn't know it had a name...) is why I don't seem to gain weight when I travel (on vacation), despite the fact that I usually eat and drink more. The calories I burn by walking everywhere--not to mention packing and unpacking, navigating airports and train stations, etc.-- really add up.