Goodbye gym, hello NEAT!

How I tricked my brain into enjoying exercise

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There’s something about the word “exercise” that triggers me. For my entire adult life, even the thought of working out has filled me with dread.

I just don’t understand why people do it for fun. How can a person look forward to going to the gym or running five miles?! Exercising has always been a necessary chore for me.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Well-meaning friends say things like “you just need to find something that you love doing”. Seriously? If it was that easy, I’m pretty sure I would’ve found “it” by now.

Believe me, there’s not much I haven’t tried in my quest to find a workout I actually enjoy: Yoga, Pilates, Zumba, HIIT, rowing, weights, treadmill, running, resistance bands, swimming, skiing, cycling, kettlebells, bouldering, and so on. I’ve joined every gym in my area at least once, only to quit within a year.

Intellectually, I know I need to exercise for my health; emotionally, I’ve always had a mental block when it comes to working out. I did it because I had to, not because I wanted to.

That’s where my mindset was when the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, we were stuck at home almost 24/7. Gyms were closed and we had to think outside the box unless we were avid runners.

Exercise classes shifted to online sessions, which was a whole new kind of hell for me. I did about two classes before I confirmed that this was not the way that I was going to keep in shape.

Feeling frustrated with myself and my inability to adapt to online exercise classes, I bought a fitness tracker to keep an eye on my daily activity levels. Work had ground to a halt, so I started spending time trying to resurrect my neglected back yard.

Most days, I’d go out and work in the yard, only to reluctantly come inside hours later and feel soreness in muscles that I didn’t even know I had. The time flew and it didn’t feel like exercise at all.

To my surprise, the fitness tracker was registering a lot of activity!

Between gardening, dog walks, and my usual running up and down the stairs throughout the day, I wasn’t as sedentary as I thought. I even enjoyed some of these activities.

It was a revelation when I realized that doing my normal day-to-day stuff “counted” towards my exercise. Maybe I didn’t need to beat myself up all the time for being lazy.

Letting go of old beliefs

As the weeks passed, there was a subtle shift in my mindset, with the concept of “movement” replacing the idea of “exercise” in my brain. Years of self-punishment and unnecessary pressure to work out more began to lift as I finally grasped that I was doing OK in terms of activity.  

I thought this was quite revolutionary until I learned that there’s a term for this called NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. NEAT is the energy that we expend when we’re just going about our daily business and not sleeping, eating, or doing intentional exercise like a sport.

All the small movements that we do throughout the day, even fidgeting, add up to higher levels of NEAT, and that can affect our longevity.

In fact, research shows that people who sit less and move more tend to live longer regardless of whether they’re meeting physical activity guidelines.

Those guidelines say we need at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week or at least 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity a week – or a combination of both – plus muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups at least twice a week.

The NEAT phenomenon has also been studied extensively in the five Blue Zones around the world, where residents live the longest and are the healthiest. These people aren’t smashing it at the gym, but one of their eight common characteristics is that they move naturally and lace their day with physical activity.

I think I was meant to be living in one of these Blue Zones. I can’t relocate to any of those faraway places, but I can certainly try to follow the lead of the people who live there.


Here are some ways that we can take a leaf out of their book and introduce more movement into our lives:

  • Set your phone alarm to get up every 30 minutes and stretch for five minutes
  • Take the stairs two at a time
  • Walk around while you’re talking on the phone
  • Get a standing desk
  • Walk or cycle instead of driving whenever possible
  • Do a little bit of house cleaning every day
  • Shovel snow/rake leaves instead of paying the neighbor’s kid to do it

I’m grateful for what I’ve learned during this pandemic, but I’m also excited to say goodbye to 2020. As I move forward into the New Year, I’ll be focusing on my NEAT and leaving behind my rigid beliefs about what I should be doing at the gym.

Moving more and sitting less won’t only help with my physical health – it’ll also be better for my mental well-being as I continue to treat myself with kindness.  

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