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NEAT Exercise for the Brain

Have you heard that prolonged sitting can be as bad for health as smoking (Owen, Bauman & Brown 2008)? The good news is that movement can help, and it doesn’t have to be a marathon. One avenue worth exploring is nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT encompasses the calories burned while living life: walking to work, fidgeting, typing, folding clothes, washing dishes, running errands and so on; only sleeping, eating and sports are not included (Levine & Yeager 2009).

Short, simple NEAT activities increase metabolism while enhancing brain health through physical movement, mental stimulation, stress management and socialization. Try these NEAT activities from Terry Eckmann, PhD, a professor at Minot State University in North Dakota who has more than 30 years’ experience in the fitness industry.

On-the-Spot Brain Boosters

Try the following moves while standing in line at the post office or waiting for a colleague or family member

  • Flex from side to side while standing, arms overhead to increase range of motion.
  • Stretch the chest by clasping your hands behind your back and looking up. Inhale while stretching, and exhale on the release. Repeat several times.
  • Perform squats and lunges.
  • March while standing, feet close to the ground or with high knees.
  • March while seated.
  • Do standing hamstring curls.
  • Shift your weight from side to side by swaying the hips.
  • Stand in tree pose while brushing your teeth.

Seated Brain Boosters

These moves increase blood flow to the brain and engage the muscles to burn a few extra calories.

  • Wiggle or tap the toes and fingers while watching television or sitting at a desk.
  • Stand up and sit down at least every 10–20 minutes (every 5–10 minutes if possible); this boosts metabolism and strengthens the glutes and quads.
  • Stand up and roll the shoulders up and back, one at a time and together.
  • After keyboarding for 5–10 minutes, stop and make circles with both wrists. Open and close the fingers, making a “starfish.” Repeat.
  • If you’ve been sitting awhile and you’re feeling sleepy or your back is tight, stand up and reach your hands to the opposite elbows behind your back. Look right and left.
  • While sitting in a meeting with your legs beneath your desk, subtly lift one leg at a time. Do this several times; then, as you lift, point your toes to the ground and, as you lower, point the toes up.
  • Fidget! The thing that drove your teachers nuts is one of the things that started research on the benefits of NEAT.
  • Give yourself a hand or foot massage.

Social Brain Boosters

The following action steps increase social interaction, which supports brain health.

  • Challenge a friend or co-worker to a 1-minute office plank or desk pushups every day for a week.
  • Walk to talk to a colleague instead of sending a text or email.
  • Walk while you’re on a long phone call.
  • Schedule a walking meeting.
  • March in place while sending a text.


BRAIN GYM® ACTIVITIES

Brain Gym activities are short, intentional exercises used in classrooms and workplaces to release stress and enhance learning and work productivity (Dennison, Dennison & Teplitz 2000). Here are two to try:

Cross-crawls. Stand or sit and march in place, touching one hand to the opposite knee, then doing the reverse (alternate). Continue for 4Ð8 complete breaths to activate both brain hemispheres. This exercise engages the brain and coordinates visual, auditory and kinesthetic abilities.

The owl. Grasp the R shoulder with the L hand near the neck and squeeze firmly. Inhale deeply, and then exhale, turning the head to look over the R shoulder. Inhale and return to center. Drop the head forward and exhale, then inhale and raise head. Repeat for 3 or more breaths and then switch sides. The owl relaxes the neck muscles and increases listening comprehension.

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