The Fidget Factor: It's NEAT

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2008

Remember the kid who sat behind you in school, the one who was constantly drumming his fingers, tapping his toes against the back of your chair, occasionally wandering around during the class and generally driving the teacher crazy? Today he'd be labeled ADHD — Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — and would probably be taking some medication to help him concentrate on what was going on in class.

ADHD does interfere with the learning process among lots of kids but not everyone who rocks to music while waiting for a traffic light to change, taps her pencil, jiggles his keys or constantly keeps changing position in what looks like a perfectly comfortable chair is afflicted with a nervous disorder. Scientists have been keeping a scholarly eye on these people and have noted that most of them are not overweight. Could there be a connection?

Those jiggly, fidgety motions might not look like they're burning up many calories but they add up. If you take in only ten calories a day more than you need you'll gain just about a pound in a year. That's what most Americans gain between the day they leave high school and their 50th birthday. Such creeping obesity adds about 30 pounds in 30 years to the national paunch and it's costing us plenty.

Research folks refer to this random activity as NEAT — Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. And it adds up to a lot more than 10 calories a day. When doctors at the Mayo clinic added 1,000 calories per day to the regular diet of normal-weight volunteers for 8 weeks the subjects gained an average of a little more than 10 pounds. Almost every one had more NEAT activity, nearly 700 calories in one subject, or the weight gain would have been a lot more.

How can we put this information to use? It doesn't take a lot of calorie expenditure (that's a non-threatening term for exercise) to keep from slowly adding a pound or two every year. If you're not a NEAT type (no offense) use the stealth exercises listed below to fight creeping obesity.

Before the middle of the last century folks often walked to work, to school or to the market. When was the last time that you did? If you have a lawn you might consider a push-type mower. It always starts with just a little shove, never breaks down, doesn't use a drop of gas or oil and the neighbors never complain about the noise on Sunday morning.

When you go shopping, park farther away than usual; use the stairs instead of the elevator. At work you can park at the far corner of the lot, use the restroom that's farthest from your desk, stand when you're on the phone and walk over to your co-worker's desk instead of using e-mail. Do your own yard work; wash your car by hand. Play outdoors with the kids a couple of time a week.

We can't all be NEAT types but we can easily use up a few more calories every day.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.