Scientists say this invisible exercise counts more than your workout

Lugging clothes to a laundromat, missing the bus and having to walk, or rushing from room to room tidying up before having people over for dinner aren’t typically fuel for a humblebrag.

However, it’s time to give yourself some credit. They have one important thing in common with the cycling trip or the marathon you’d tell your friends about: they’re exercise.

There’s actually a name for this kind of undercover physical activity: non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT. It’s a broad category that includes everything from walking the dog to shopping for groceries to doing the dishes and reorganizing the closet.

As one study explains simply: “activities that create movement will enhance caloric expenditure.”

NEAT is an important but overlooked portion of overall physical activity, which is increasingly linked to most aspects of health and longevity. While social and environmental factors do have a hand in shaping how much of this activity we get, there’s good news, too: there are ways to work more of this underrated exertion into our days.

SCIENCE IN ACTION — If trips to the gym and long bike outings are the Hollywood stars of a movie, unplanned and unscheduled physical activity is like the crew that does work behind the scenes without getting as much credit.

By one 2004 estimate published in the American Journal of Physiology, regular activities — even those we don’t call “exercise” — account for a large portion of our energy expenditure. Anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of the daily calories we burn specifically come from all the pacing, cat petting, playing, puttering, and fidgeting we do.

Other calories are burned as part of our “basal metabolic rate” or what happens when we’re at rest or asleep, and then there’s another small portion spent on digesting food. In people in sedentary occupations (read: sitting at a computer all day), that basal metabolic rate can account for up to 60 percent of the energy we spend — because not much energy is expended at the baseline.

WHY IT’S A HACK — With so much emphasis on high-intensity workouts, cycling, or weight training, it can be easy to overlook the physical activities we do for other reasons besides “fitness.”

Exercise that gets your heart rate up is important, to be sure, but a popular fitness adage remains true: “the best exercise is the one you will do.”

Incorporating more everyday movement could be useful for someone who’s never touched a yoga mat or set foot on a treadmill, for whom the burden of embarking on a HIIT-filled “fitness journey” can seem insurmountable.

“Overall, people need to stay active throughout the day and exercise on top of that,” Remzi Satiroglu, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, Austin, tells Inverse. Satiroglu studies cycling and how “background exercise” interacts with more intense workouts.

“Current physical activity recommendations do not mention the importance of background physical activity as much as we want,” he explains.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the Department of Health and Human Services instead emphasize scheduled exercise — providing target goals for “moderate” and “vigorous-intensity” aerobic activity but only include a small section on step count, without a specific recommendation. Images in the guide seem to champion more scheduled fitness, too: people on treadmills, in gyms, with tennis rackets or soccer balls.

A growing interest in step-counting has highlighted the importance of the walking we do throughout the day, but there’s even more to this kind of background exercise.

Here are some high-value forms of NEAT (more than 100 calories per hour) that come from Move a Little, Lose a Lot, a book co-authored by James Levine, a former professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic and the president of Foundation Ipsen, an organization that studies rare diseases:

  • Cleaning out storage space/garage
  • Grocery shopping
  • Sweeping or vacuuming
  • Climbing stairs
  • Pushing a stroller
  • Playing fetch with the dog
  • Gardening or weeding
  • Washing the car
  • Biking
  • Walking to work
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Watching TV on a standing bike
  • Doing volunteer work

You’re likely already doing at least a handful of these, but there might be space to fit in a few more.

HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — More physical activity is almost always for the better when it comes to living a long, healthy life. But only some of us have access to the time, equipment, and resources it takes to engage in what we typically think of as “exercise.”

The spaces we occupy, or our “built environment,” can also erode or enhance chances of staying “fit” over time. In many cases, the necessities of daily life mean many people will get their exercises from daily activities — especially if they live in low-income countries.

Where we live can affect every kind of physical activity, but especially NEAT. For example, making the choice to walk or bike to work largely depends on the distance you have to travel, and the presence of bike lanes or sidewalks. Swimming for fun won’t work without a swimming pool, nor will walking through a park where the only public space is a strip mall.

On the other hand, “active design” in architecture can stealthily encourage movement — by putting a cafeteria further away from offices, for example, or making a stairway so fun that everyone wants to climb it.

While the kind of exercise we get isn’t necessarily a choice, we have more than a little control over our non-scheduled exercise: small things like household projects, parking further away and walking, or starting a small garden with whatever space you have can add up.

It’s pretty NEAT.

HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 — 🏪🛒🐶🛁🏪🛒🐶 (7/10)

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