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.