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The Smart Way to Move

Integrate nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) activities into overall program design to help clients boost metabolism and cognitive function.

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Clients and attendees want to see results, and you want this, too. However, you’re with them a limited number of hours per week; you have little control over what they do when they’re not with you. What if you could provide additional tools that would help people reach their physical goals while also helping them make new neural connections?

Research suggests that prolonged sitting can be as bad for health as smoking (Owen, Bauman & Brown 2008; Owen et al. 2010). While consistent exercise and a healthy diet can help to counteract the effects of sitting too much, people still struggle to find a healthy center point. One avenue worth exploring is nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) (Levine 2003).

Total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is the number of calories burned in a day, counting basal metabolic rate, the thermic effect of food, planned exercise and NEAT (Levine 2003). NEAT encompasses the calories burned while living life—walking to work, fidgeting, typing, chewing gum, folding clothes, washing dishes, running errands and so on; only sleeping, eating and sports are not included (Levine & Yeager 2009).

Sitting “deactivates” the brain and lowers metabolism. Limited physical activity, low levels of mental stimulation and the absence of socialization have a detrimental effect on the human brain over time (Moceri et al. 2000; Nussbaum 2006). Although experts conclude that brain health should be a priority given the threat of dementia, data indicate that most people are more reactive than proactive with their health and lifestyle (Nussbaum 2011). The good news is that movement can help, and it doesn’t have to be a marathon.

This article looks at what inactivity has wrought in our society and then offers a solution: NEAT brain boosters, simple activities clients can easily fit into their everyday lives to increase metabolism and improve brain health.

The Sedentary Stigma

Although it’s widely known that a sedentary lifestyle is hazardous to health, a high percentage of people of all ages don’t move enough, and one byproduct of that is obesity. More than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults are obese (Ogden et al. 2015). Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death. In 2008, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion; in 2006, medical costs for people with obesity (in 2008 dollars) were $1,429 higher than for those of normal weight (Finkelstein et al. 2009).

The obesity epidemic is attributed in part to insufficient physical activity, and evidence supports reducing time spent sitting as a way to improve metabolic consequences. A sizable fraction of the population sits a lot and could benefit from standing and moving more (Patel et al. 2010). Even when adults meet physical activity guidelines, sitting for extended periods can compromise metabolic health. Time spent sitting, watching television and sitting in cars increases premature mortality risk (Owen, Bauman & Brown 2008; Owen et al. 2010). Television watching in both men and women is consistently related to higher body mass index and larger waist circumference. Watching television for 3 or more hours per day is associated with a twofold risk of abdominal obesity, even for physically active individuals (Heinonen 2013).

Only high levels of moderate-intensity physical activity (about 60–75 minutes per day) seem to eliminate the increased mortality risk associated with excessive sitting. And high activity levels merely lessen, and do not eliminate, the increased risk associated with too much screen time. These results provide further evidence that regular movement breaks are beneficial, particularly in societies where sitting is standard (Ekelund et al. 2016).

It can be overwhelming for sedentary individuals to increase activity levels, but fitness professionals can encourage clients to create mini habits, “little things” that act as stepping stones to an active lifestyle (Guise 2013). A study by McManus (2007) determined that burning approximately 150 calories a day with NEAT activities can prevent weight gain. This is a good starting point to increase movement, improve metabolism and enjoy better health.

The Cognitive Key

The brain also benefits from movement. Simple activities can boost NEAT while building and strengthening the brain. John Medina (2008) refers to physical activity as “cognitive candy.” The two primary foods for the brain are oxygen and glucose; oxygen reacts with glucose to produce energy for cell function (Ratey 2008). Movement increases the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain and triggers the release of glucose, which is stored in the body as glycogen. Proper glucose levels are associated with stronger memory and cognitive function. Brain booster activities increase blood flow to the brain, feeding it with glucose and oxygen. When we move, our muscles produce proteins that travel through the bloodstream and into the brain to strengthen function (Ratey 2008).

When a person sits for longer than 10 minutes, the brain downshifts, and it becomes more difficult to pay attention (Jensen 2000). The brain uses 20% of the body’s oxygen and glucose, and the body must move in order to deliver that fuel to the brain (Medina 2008; Eckmann & Stoddart 2015). Office settings and school environments typically require doing a great deal of work in a seated position, and yet the brain is least productive when sitting (Eckmann 2013; Ratey 2008; Jensen 2000). Results from the Take-A-Stand Study Project showed that when sedentary workers reduced sitting time, they saw improvements in back health and mood (Pronk et al. 2012).

Brain health is the result of a dynamic process in which a person engages in behaviors and environments that are beneficial to the brain. Brain health is also referred to as brain fitness, cognitive fitness and mental fitness (Nussbaum 2011). The brain’s neuroplasticity and its dynamic ability to constantly grow, change and reorganize throughout the lifespan support the need to stimulate the brain with healthy lifestyle choices.

The brain’s capacity for neurogenesis—generating new brain cells—provides an incentive to keep moving, learning, eating a healthy diet and connecting with others at all ages and stages of life. According to Diamond & Hopson (1998), physical activity, socialization and mental stimulation are key in growing the “magic trees” of our minds—i.e., our neurons and their dendritic branches.

NEAT brain booster activities are based on exercises that can

  • strengthen the corpus callosum (band of neural fibers
    connecting the two hemispheres of the brain);
  • boost levels of key neurotransmitters like dopamine,
    serotonin and norepinephrine;
  • increase levels of neurotrophic factors like brain-derived-neurotrophic factor (BDNF), vascular-endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF);
  • improve mood;
  • decrease levels of cortisol;
  • raise a person’s stress threshold;
  • help in effectively managing stress; and
  • increase self-confidence.

(Eckmann 2013; Ratey 2008; Jensen 2000)

NEAT Brain Boosters in Action

You know the problem; NEAT brain boosters offer a solution. These short, simple activities increase metabolism while enhancing brain health through physical movement, mental stimulation, stress management and socialization. Teach these tools to clients and class participants as ways to improve health and wellness outcomes.

Postural Brain Boosters

Sitting, standing and moving with good posture elevates mood, increases confidence, improves breathing capacity, strengthens core muscles and boosts metabolism (Eckmann & Stoddart 2015).

Take the two-finger test. While sitting or standing, place your pointer and middle fingers on your lips. Keep your fingers right where they are and draw your head back as far as you can without tilting. Notice where your fingers are in comparison to your head. There may be up to 3 inches between your lips and your fingers. This simple test emphasizes how unconsciously we sit and stand in poor posture.

Yoga Brain Boosters

Practicing yoga can improve metabolism, breathing capacity and cardiovascular reserve (Ray, Pathak & Tomer 2011). It also raises gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels, which helps to calm the brain, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces anxiety and improves focus. The following breath work, poses and flows are ideal for re-energizing the brain and body.

Breath Work

  • Develop a 6-second breath cycle to get 10 breaths per minute. Inhale for 2 seconds, hold for 1 second, exhale for 2 seconds, hold for 1 second. Repeat.
  • Practice alternate-nostril breathing. Gently close the opposite nostril, alternating thumb and ring fingers. Inhale through the right nostril; exhale through the left; inhale L; exhale R.
  • Practice double breathing. Sit upright, palms on thighs. Inhale twice through the nose while tightening the muscles. Exhale through the nose and then the mouth, relaxing the muscles. Repeat several times.
  • Bee’s breath releases mental tension and/or reduces anger. Close the ears with the index and middle fingers, inhale deeply and hum during the exhalation (think buzzing bee).
  • Experience the therapeutic, calming effects of the three-part breath. From a comfortable position, with neutral spine, inhale and exhale through the nose. Expand the belly, ribs and chest (in that order). Slowly exhale relaxing the chest, ribs and belly (like a wave).

Daily, Anywhere Yoga Poses and Flows

  • Tree pose. Practice tree pose to foster balance and concentration. Balancing on one leg, place the opposite foot above or below the standing leg’s inner thigh (not on the knee). Place the arms at the heart center or reach toward the sky.
  • Warrior flow. Move through warrior I, warrior II and reverse warrior to increase focus and concentration while strengthening the lower body and the core.
  • Volcano pose. Begin with hands pressed together at the heart as you breathe deeply; exhaling, reach the arms overhead; and circle the hands back to center. This pose calms and stretches the body.
  • Cat-cow flow. Try this while seated, standing or on all fours (quadruped). It helps to prevent lower-back pain and discomfort, common symptoms of sitting too much. From all fours, inhale and flex the spine. Exhaling, press both hands into the floor and round the spine. Repeat.
  • Plank pose. To increase focus and strengthen the entire body, practice plank anywhere: with hands against a wall or tree, feet angled back; traditionally (on the floor); or with hands on a desk. Keep the spine in neutral, and hold the pose for 10 seconds or more.

Dance Brain Boosters

Dance helps the brain form new connections and work faster. It increases blood supply to the brain, fueling temporal and prefrontal brain activity responsible for memory improvement (Alpert 2011). Encourage clients to create a joyful dance playlist and—every 20–30 minutes—to dance while seated or standing.

Playlist suggestions:

  • merengue: “I’m a Freak” by Enrique Iglesias, featuring Pitbull
  • cha-cha: “Let’s Get Loud” by Jennifer Lopez
  • waltz: “Husbands and Wives” by Brooks & Dunn or “Open Arms” by Journey
  • traditional two-step: “Why Don’t We Just Dance” by Josh Turner
  • country three-step: “I Love This Life” by LOCASH
  • freestyle: “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars

On-the-Spot Brain Boosters

Remind clients how much NEAT adds up and encourage them to 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.
  • Stand on one leg, shoulders stacked over hips, core engaged, knee lifted.
  • Perform balancing pigeon (figure four).
  • Do standing hamstring curls.
  • Shift your weight from side to side by swaying the hips.
  • Stand in tree pose while brushing your teeth.
  • Do jumping jacks, squats, lunges and crunches during commercials—commit to doing this for at least 1 week.
  • Do pushups and triceps dips at a counter, desk or wall; vary the hand width.

Seated Brain Boosters

Teach clients to do the following NEAT moves while sitting; they 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 strengthen 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.
  • Do a seated twist: Reach your arm across your body, grasp the opposite leg or chair, and look over your shoulder.
  • Extend one leg and bend slightly forward at the hips to stretch your hamstrings.
  • Give yourself a hand or foot massage.
  • Do self-myofascial release.
  • Knit, sew, color, paint or draw.

Every Little Bit Helps!

Brain and body fitness is a lifelong process. NEAT brain boosters are little things that, practiced over time, make a big difference in longevity and wellness. Integrating brain boosters into the day helps develop healthy mini habits that may increase willpower and give sedentary clients the inspiration and energy needed to boost activity levels (Guise 2013). Active people get the extra movement they need to burn more calories, reduce disease risks, and energize and activate brain centers.


According to the Centers for Disease Control, chronic diseases are the number-one threat to public health, far surpassing infectious diseases. Eighty-six percent of our healthcare costs go toward chronic diseases (CDC 2017), and prolonged sitting is a significant contributor. When people get up and move, they’re likely to see big benefits:

  • a 21%–25% reduction in risk for breast cancer and colon cancer
  • a 20%–27% reduction in risk for stroke
  • a 27% reduction in risk for diabetes

Sources: WHO 2009; Sacco et al. 2006


Share these NEAT brain boosters with clients to encourage more movement in their daily lives and to supplement your program. The following action steps also increase social interaction, which supports brain health:

  • Get up and walk to get a drink of water and say hello to others along the way. Water consumption can improve cognitive performance, particularly visual attention and mood (Masento et al. 2014).
  • 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.
  • Handwrite and send a note of gratitude once a week.
  • When a co-worker or friend gets good news, give her a high-five or fist bump.
  • Walk while you’re on a long phone call.
  • Schedule a walking meeting.
  • March in place while sending a text.
  • Play cards or board games.


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).

Cross crawl. Stand or sit and march in place, touching one hand to the opposite knee, then doing the reverse (alternate). Continue for 4–8 complete breaths to activate both brain hemispheres. This exercise engages the brain and coordinates visual, auditory and kinesthetic abilities.

Hookups. Standing with feet flat on the floor, cross the left leg over the right ankle. Extend arms, backs of hands facing each other, and cross the L hand over the R. Join hands, palms facing. Inhale, place the tongue flat against the roof of your mouth, about a quarter inch behind the front teeth. Exhale, lowering the tongue. Repeat tongue placements for 4–8 complete breaths to increase energy.

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, returning to center. Repeat for 3 or more breaths and then switch sides. The owl relaxes the neck muscles and increases listening comprehension.


Being immersed in natural surroundings renews and replenishes the brain. Encourage clients to try the following:

  • Walk outside and stand, stretch or hold a yoga pose.
  • Take a walk around the building or down the sidewalk.
  • Work in a garden.
  • Practice mindfulness by noticing your surroundings with all five senses.
  • Incorporate any of the standing NEAT brain boosters.


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