A "NEAT" Way to Think About Fitness

kids on escalator; A Neat Way to Think About FitnessMADISON – Most people think the rise in childhood obesity stems from a sedentary lifestyle coupled with an increase in junk food. Kids are playing computer games instead of kickball games. They're eating chips instead of fruit. While those types of things certainly do contribute to obesity, there may be something else involved.

That something is what researchers at the Mayo Clinic have termed "NEAT," or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. It is a complicated word for a simple concept – the amount of energy people use to go through the daily motions of regular life. And it's a concept of interest to David Allen, MD, pediatric endocrinologist with American Family Children's Hospital and UW Health's Pediatric Fitness Clinic.

Over the last 20 or 25 years, there has been a sharp increase in childhood obesity. The most obvious reason, according to Dr. Allen, is that we have developed an imbalance between the energy going in and the energy going out. Yet, research has shown that over the last few decades, the number of calories going in hasn't substantially changed. That points to the other side of the equation – a reduction in the amount of energy going out.
Little Things Mean A Lot
How kids go about their day may seem insignificant, but little activities can make a big difference in a child's weight. The simple, everyday things that kids do -- such as how they get to school, to friends' houses, the errands they do, even how much time they spend standing versus sitting -- all have an impact.

"When you add [the activities] up over the course of a day," explained Dr. Allen, "it can easily make a difference between 100 calories burned and 100 calories stored."

Those 100 extra calories may be barely perceptible in a person's daily diet – one glass of milk, one piece of bread – but if those calories are stored each day, that could add up to an extra pound each month. Over five years, that could translate into roughly 60 pounds.

"The problem is, if this type of imbalance begins early in life, then it becomes a vicious cycle where the added weight makes it more uncomfortable to walk to school, more of a chore to do daily things. So it just reinforces the sedentary lifestyle," said Dr. Allen. 

Modern Conveniences
Technological progress has helped produce a dramatic shift in the way we go about our daily activities – driving to run errands even if they're only a few blocks away, using the remote control, spending large amounts of time in front of the computer. Along with that has been a change in our physical and even social environments as well. Suburbs and neighborhoods aren't necessarily pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly. Many people don't feel safe walking in their neighborhoods and don't let their children play outside.

"You can count the ways that there's been a gradual restriction in spontaneous outdoor activities that we used to take for granted," commented Dr. Allen.

Yet bringing activity back into the daily routine is as simple as taking advantage of any opportunity to be a little bit active: walking to friends' houses, choosing parking spaces that are a distance away from the door, using the stairs.

"If you don't feel comfortable with your child walking to a friends' house, walk with them," suggests Dr. Allen. "It's good for the kids and their parents."

As our world becomes increasingly filled with conveniences, and given the continued rise in childhood obesity, understanding how daily activity levels can influence children's weight takes on even greater importance.

A Child's World
"The reason I like to bring people's attention to the need for routine everyday physical activity," explained Dr. Allen, "is that our reasons for being active is becoming less and less. It's daunting to think about how our worlds of daily living require less and less physical activity, and this trend is not going to change."

Consequently, Dr. Allen and his colleagues are working with individuals from departments across the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including urban and regional planning, nutrition, and public health. Together, they are examining ways of preventing obesity and diabetes across the state. Their group, WiPOD, or Wisconsin Prevention of Obesity and Diabetes, is looking at issues including neighborhood design, mass transportation, even social and economic factors that may influence a person's physical environment.

The group is planning an in-depth analysis of what really goes on in a child's world. They will look at children's physical environment, nutrition environment, how these factors affect the choices children can make, and ultimately, whether those choices correlate to obesity and diabetes risks in kids.

"The only real possible solution to the obesity epidemic isn't something that doctors alone are going to be able to take care of in our offices," commented Dr. Allen. "But together, working with communities, we can develop a solution that stands a chance of being effective." 

Date Published: 04/21/2008

News tag(s):  pediatric fitness

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