incidental activity

Incidental Activity is NEAT! Here’s how to do more of it

We all know that regular exercise is good for our health, but most of us only focus on “structured” exercise. And while things like gym classes, running or weights sessions are great, there’s also another much more subtle way to be more active. It’s called incidental physical activity, and it can make a big difference to your well-being.

You don’t just burn energy when you’re exercising

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) collectively refers to any form of unstructured activity we do that expends energy. NEAT can include sleeping, grocery shopping, gardening, eating and hanging out the laundry. Whilst different activities will burn varying amounts of kilojoules, it’s important to note that NEAT makes up almost three quarters of our daily energy expenditure.

Factors that influence an individual’s NEAT are extensive. They include environmental considerations like ambient temperature and biological factors like height, weight and fat mass versus fat free mass. Other influences include occupation, working hours which may contribute to stress, sleep and time spent doing structured exercise.

Overall, it’s easier than you might think to increase the amount of energy you burn in a day.

The key is to move more and sit less

The evidence is clear: the more we move, the lower our risk of avoiding health complications as we age. Whilst seated our muscles are inactive and circulation of blood slows down. All it takes is three hours of sitting before significant decrements in arterial function can be detected. Prolonged sitting can increase the risk of health complications like diabetes, heart disease or high cholesterol in the long-term.

But it’s not all bad news…

prolonged sitting

A little movement makes a big difference

Even small changes can make a substantial difference when it comes to breaking up periods of sedentary time. Research shows that doing just three minutes of resistance exercises or light walking every 30 minutes of prolonged sitting can have a significant impact on your health. The results showed that for adults with poor adherence to structured exercise programs, interrupting prolonged sitting with brief periods of movement is a practical way to increase physical activity levels.

Another study looked the role of short activity breaks during periods of sitting for postprandial (after-food) glucose responses and diabetes management. There were three groups involved with this research. The first group were completely sedentary after consuming a standardised carbohydrate-based drink. The second group incorporated two-minute bouts of light intensity walking every 20 minutes after consuming the drink. The third group walked for two-minutes at a moderate intensity every 20 minutes.

The results showed that breaking up sitting with two minutes of light walking reduced blood glucose by 24.1%. Those who did moderate intensity walking saw an average reduction in their blood glucose levels of 29.6%. For those individuals who may be constrained to a wheelchair, performing air punches or alternative upper limb activities can help attain similar improvements.

Tips for increasing incidental physical activity

There’s lots of easy ways to move more! Below are some relatively simply ideas that might work for you in increasing your current level of incidental activity:

Don’t just sit while you watch TV

Sitting in front of the television burns around 9 kcal/hour. To increase your energy expenditure if required, try finishing off your evening with some ironing whilst watching your favourite television show. This will save you time later and expend an additional 50-100 kcal per hour! To provide some perspective, one hour of resistance band exercises expends a comparable amount of energy (subject to the intensity of training).

Use a standing desk

If you’re spending a lot of time sitting at a computer, try using a standing desk if you can. Alternatively, set a reminder on your phone or smart watch to stand up for 2-3 minutes every hour throughout the day.

Make the most of your lunch break

Recognising the lunch break as an opportunity to move is another way to ‘kill two birds with one stone’. Try walking with a colleague as an opportunity to socialise, get some sunshine, fresh air and expend some energy!

Make your meetings active

Take your phone calls on the move or try walking meetings. Whilst it’s sometimes easier said than done, try to recognise movement as an opportunity rather than an obligation or chore in maintaining your health and well-being.

Add short bursts of movement to boring tasks

Waiting for the kettle to boil? Try making a habit of incorporating squats, wall push-ups or calf raises to pass the time. If you’re working from home (like many of us are these days!) this is a great way to add some activity into your day.

Set yourself reminders to move

Using reminders can be an effective strategy to break up periods of prolonged sedentary behaviour. Putting reminders in places where you sit most can be a great idea if you don’t have access to an activity monitor or smart watch. The ‘Rise & Recharge’ app is a great one to keep you accountable.

Incidental activity is for everyone

Incidental activity isn’t just for people who aren’t performing regular structured exercise. Exercise and physical activity go hand in hand, and both occupy an important section of the Australian physical activity guidelines. So, regardless of whether you have attended your morning exercise class or not, we can all benefit more from sitting less and moving more!

An Accredited Exercise Physiologist can help get you moving more, find the type of exercise that is best for you and give you tools for exercise success! Find one near you!


Written by Hayden Kelly. Hayden is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Diabetes NSW and ACT.