N.E.A.Ls

1 09 2008

Exercise is fantastic. It makes me feel great. It’s great for my heart. It helps me re-shape my body. It’s good for the libido. I also believe that it is helpful in losing weight. However, it’s never been shown to be *that* helpful – at least not at the levels that most people do it. Why? Probably lots of reasons: People don’t push themselves that hard, They get stuck in ruts where they do the same exercise each time, They don’t gain muscle mass. But at least one of the big problems is that moderate exercise doesn’t burn that many calories. Think of it this way, to lose one pound a week, you should have a calorie-deficit of 500 calories/day. Even when I’m working pretty hard for 1/2 hour, I probably burn, at most, 300 calories. If I was only going to the gym 3 days a week (not so unusual considering most people’s hectic lives) I might only burn 900 calories per week exercising. It would therefore take about 4 weeks to lose 1 pound of body fat by exercise alone. This is why running a calorie deficit is so essential to losing body fat.

There have, however, been a few studies which show that natural fidgeters burn a lot more calories than people who are good at sitting still. This led to the recommendation by some to try and learn to become a fidgeter. Er? Maybe not. It kind of feels like trying to force yourself to have a tic. You might be able to do it so long as you’re conscious about it, but the moment it slips your mind, you’re probably going to stop.

One thing I’ve realized about myself during the introspection leading up to this change is that I’ve often used exercise as an excuse to be utterly lazy the rest of the day. I know I’m not alone in this. We go to the gym. We sweat a lot. We feel all good and virtuous then spend the rest of the day being pretty sedentary. We avoid heavy duty chores or yardwork. We take the elevator. We decide to lounge around after dinner instead of taking a walk. Why not? We already worked out! Except, as I said above, gym exercise, especially moderate cardio, isn’t generally going to be the deciding factor in weight loss.

For me the answer includes weight training, doing smarter cardio and N.E.A.Ls. NEAL stands for non-exercise activity level and is my personal measure of all activity not involving a sports bra and stretchy pants. I truly believe that a lifestyle change is more than just food, more than the gym, it is about how you spend your free time. It is about taking that leisurely walk after dinner instead of watching tv or about not putting off cleaning the house. It’s all those little things that don’t really do much, but can add up over weeks and months to thousands upon thousands of extra burned calories.

It’s more than just calories though. It’s about being an active person. I really believe that movement begets movement. It feels easier to come in from a stroll and clean the kitchen than it does to force myself out of a chair and do so.

So what are some easy ways I increase my NEALs?

  • Walk and talk: anytime I’m talking to some on my cell phone, especially during long conversations, I walk around. Sometimes I can add over a mile of walking in a day just by slowly walking the neighborhood while I talk.
  • Being a neat freak: My house won’t pass the white glove test, but I make sure to work at keeping it vacuumed, scrubbed and mostly dusted. Also, when I notice something that needs to be done (like the fan blades need to be wiped down) I do it as soon as possible.
  • Taking the stairs: Seriously, it’s advice you’ll hear from everywhere and there’s a good reason for that. Do what I do and treat every set of stairs like a mini HIIT session (unless of course, there are lots of people in front of you.)
  • Meander. Find some place in town that you really like. Maybe a neighborhood with great architecture or a botanical garden or a museum and make it a go-to place when you’ve got nothing else to do. Then just enjoy wandering around. Trust me when I tell you it’ll be more fun than watching tv.

There are lots of ways to incorporate movement into our lives even outside the gym or the running trail. At first, it can feel as forced as trying to make yourself fidget all day long, but give it time and you’ll find yourself craving movement more and more. And even better, those times you do sit down to watch an entire season of Doctor Who or to read a book for hours on end will feel like a refreshing treat.

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