By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
Many overweight people in the USA have “sitting disease” and would lose weight if they did more walking, standing and moving around during the day, says endocrinologist James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Levine is talking about increasing your NEAT, or “non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” which accounts for much of your movement and therefore caloric expenditure throughout the day. These are activities such as walking to lunch, pacing while on the phone, cleaning the house, cooking, climbing stairs, standing while you talk to a friend, folding laundry. It doesn’t include the calories you burn during intense exercise: jogging, aerobics or power walking.

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NEAT is a crucial part of people’s total caloric expenditure, but it has been leeched out of people’s lives, robbing them of using 1,500 to 2,400 calories a day and contributing to excess weight and obesity, says Levine, a professor of medicine at Mayo who has studied calorie-burning for 20 years. He has written a new book, Move a Little, Lose a Lot, with Selene Yeager to help people find new ways to move more and lose weight.

Q: What do you mean that we have “sitting disease”? What can be done about that?

A: A desk-bound man or woman takes only 5,000 to 6,000 steps a day. That compares with about 18,000 steps a day for the average man and 14,000 for a woman in an Amish community.

On a typical weekend, it’s possible to use many of 40 different NEAT-squelching devices: alarm clock, cellphone, BlackBerry, home computer, microwave, remote controls, electric toothbrush, snow blower, lawnmower.

We need to move more throughout the day. The key is to find what you enjoy doing.

Simple examples include a quick walk around the block before your morning shower; a 30-minute walk at lunch; having a couple of walk-and-talk meetings during the day (research shows you’ll think better); pacing when you’re talking on the phone; taking a 15-minute catch-up walk after work with your partner; walking with your children and listening to their music with them; doing some active volunteering such as taking a stressed mom’s children out for a walk or bringing a meal to an elderly person.

If you incorporate some of these ideas into your day, you burn an extra 500 to 1,000 calories.

Q: You encourage people to walk more at any speed for weight loss and maintenance. Does that really work?

A: If we all had two hours of free time in our lives to put on our warm clothes and go on a brisk walk, that would be brilliant, but in reality, we don’t have the time.

When we perform studies to examine how normal people walk as they go about their business during the day, we find that the velocity is about 1.1 mph. Our research suggests that weaving this kind of walking throughout the day can help overweight people shed far more pounds than they ever dreamed possible.

If you simply convert sedentary TV time to active time, you could lose 50 pounds a year. Even marching in place or using a $50 stepper while watching your favorite programs would burn thousands of calories in a year and translate to a big weight loss and better-looking body.

Q: Does fidgeting promote weight loss?

A: In terms of calorie burn or weight loss, fidgeting doesn’t help you. The research we conducted demonstrated that the secret to burning fat was to get up, move and walk. We found that people can increase their NEAT by 800 calories a day and resist gaining weight, even when they eat too much. At first the world’s press mistook NEAT for being a fidgeting phenomenon, but we pointed out that you would never be able to fidget enough to burn 800 calories a day.

Fidgeting is your body’s way of telling you to get up and move. Our body wants to move, but the environment suppresses it.

Q: Research suggests that some people seem hard-wired to be more sedentary than others. Can people change that?

A: The behavior research suggests that if you adopt a change for about 21 (or 20) consecutive days, your brain adapts. So if you work more NEAT into your life for 21 days, it becomes a dynamic and energized way of living that naturally flows through your day.