By Jennifer Drapkin, published on March 15, 2005 - last reviewed on June 21, 2011
Throw away the remote. Fire the maid. And never drive to work again. A study from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, proves that the real difference between people who are obese and those who are not is how often they stand up. Literally.
Researchers find that in an average day, obese people sit for 2.5 hours more than their lean peers. They burn 350 less calories per day. All else being equal, that translates to approximately 10 extra pounds per year.
"If you've ever gone to the gym and looked at the treadmill, 350 calories is no joke," says James A. Levine, the endocrinologist, who led the study. "It's enough to account for who becomes obese and who does not."
In an age of NetFlicks, FreshDirect and Domino's, when you can order everything online and never leave a chair, the solution to the nation's obesity crisis might be as simple as walking out the door. "Obesity may be more closely tied to activity levels than we ever imagined before," said Dr. Levine. And he's not talking marathons or even gym workouts. "The calories you burn in everyday activities can make a tremendous difference in your life," he insists. In case you missed it the first time, let me repeat: everyday activities.
Six years ago, Dr. Levine discovered something he calls NEAT, for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. It describes the energy we expend in physical movement other than planned exercise. The new study measured the NEAT levels of 20 self-proclaimed couch potatoes, half of whom were obese.
Their mundane movements were tracked for 10 days. In case you're wondering how: All wore custom-made, data-collecting underwear. Each morning, the participants were measured at the clinic, where they received fresh underwear and all of their meals. The researchers found that the 10 lean participants all walked, paced, cleaned, cooked and stood more than the 10 obese subjects.
"One by one, these movements added up," says Dr. Levine. "But it's about more than wiggling your toes. It's about getting up out of your seat."
Taking the study further, the researchers sought to determine whether low NEAT levels were a cause of obesity or byproduct. Once again, the participants donned the special underwear.
For two months, the thin subjects were overfed, each gaining about nine pounds, and the obese subjects were underfed, each losing about 17 pounds. Even though the subjects gained and lost weight, their daily movements did not change. Our NEAT level seems to be hardwired into us.
But Dr. Levine is optimistic that, with a little conscious learning, people can change their daily activity levels, although NEAT may be genetic or established early in life. He serves himself up as Exhibit A. He contends his movement habits changed as a result of doing the study.
"Now, I'm addicted to standing up," he says. "People can change their lifestyles completely. I encourage everyone to just stand up and see how good it makes you feel."
In the interests of journalistic accuracy I feel bound to report that he then forced the reporter to stand up for the remainder of the interview.
"If people would just put a treadmill in front of their televisions and walk one mile per hour, it could completely change their health. The take-home message is get up, get up, get up."