When I interview James Levine, appropriately enough it’s a walk-and-talk affair. Levine practically coined the phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” so a couch or table conversation would not have felt right. And Levine hates sitting still. He takes any opportunity to fit a little more movement into the day, even if it means putting aside modern conveniences. Levine is someone who wouldn’t buy a Roomba if he could push around an old Hoover instead.
It’s the middle of the day when we hustle around the Mayo Clinic campus, in Phoenix. The sun is bearing down and it’s a struggle to keep up with Levine’s pace. He reels off statistics about the obesity epidemic (now a global phenomenon), overeating, and how our lives are designed to reduce calorie expenditure. We’ve created a world where food is cheap and always available, but where our opportunity to spend the energy we get from eating it is limited, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t like going to the gym.
Levine, though, has a solution: what he calls Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or NEAT. NEAT encompasses things that burn energy but aren’t technically exercise, such as walking to work and doing yard work. But it also includes more subtle activities, such as gesturing while talking and tapping your feet under the desk. It’s lots of little, seemingly unimportant motions that Levine thinks can add up to something bigger: enough energy expenditure that you won’t gain weight, even if you’re eating too much (which you almost certainly are).
“NEAT acts almost like a fulcrum. When we overeat, if our NEAT doesn’t change, we gain extra calories as body weight,” Levine says. “If we switch on or activate our NEATs, we will not gain excess calories during periods of eating too much.”
Levine, who’s based at the Mayo Clinic, says two people can eat the same amount of food, but one person will get fat while the other person will stay lean–all because of the differences in their NEAT activity. People can burn 100 to 150 calories an hour by increasing their NEAT (and lose up to 30 pounds a year). NEAT can account for an 850-calorie difference a day in energy expenditure–all from activities that aren’t full-on work or exercise.
To help promote his message, Levine has helped develop a series of office movement machines, including a treadmill desk, a swing for sedentary feet, and a chair that encourages regular rocking. He’s also consulted at dozens of companies around the world, pushing the message that NEAT-informed employees are more productive than non-NEAT-informed employees. (He even presented to the board of McDonald’s, an experience he describes as unsettling).
“If you’re going to recruit the brightest and smartest people, you’ve got to have one of these cool, dynamic, active offices. This new style of working is extremely attractive to younger people who are terrified of the desk job. That is not what they want,” Levine says.
The most NEAT-innovative companies have leaders who commit to the idea. They put in standing or treadmill desks and walking tracks inside and out. They encourage walk-and-talk meetings. And they let people get up during sit-down meetings, even to throw a ball around or to do some stretching. The most important changes are cultural, Levine says. It becomes more normal for workers to be standing and moving about than sitting and sedentary.
“There’s a ripple effect where the birthday cake becomes an activity outside the office, where the office party is a visit to an art gallery, and the cake comes at the end, not the beginning. You also find these individuals champions who encourage the rest of the office,” he says.
Though the evidence base for standing desks themselves is still limited, Levine has collected dozens of papers on the dangers of sitting, and the benefits of small movement. He’s convinced that fidgety movement is more natural than inactivity. He quotes early 20th-century research from Russia, which only recently came to light, showing how the body has multiple circadian rhythms. As well as the sleep-wake cycle, the body also has a stop-move cycle based in the hypothalamus area of the brain. This creates a twitchiness in us that precedes movement. And, actually, it’s easier to respond to the cycle than to suppress it by sitting down, he says.
Of course, going to the gym is still a good idea. But, if that’s not your passion, there are many other worthwhile types of movement, even if it’s just tapping your foot. “A lot of people don’t like going to gyms, and a lot of people are too busy to, or can’t even afford it,” Levine says. “What we’re interested in is how to mix movement into everyday life. That’s something children intuitively understand, but it’s something as adults we forget to do.”