Sunday, October 22, 2006

Increasing NEAT - A better way to lose weight?

Several months ago I read this article about Dr. James Levine's obesity work at the Mayo Clinic and I found myself inspired.

Dr. Levine's work is based on the fact that there are three primary ways the human body uses the calories you eat: basal metabolic rate (how much energy you need just to keep your body alive, even when you aren't doing anything), thermic effect of food (just digesting and metabolizing your food takes some energy too) and activity thermogenesis, which is the energy required to do everything else you do during the day. Dr. Levine's group then split activity thermogenesis into two parts: directed exercise (e.g., going to the gym) and everything else. The "everything else" is NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. An extensive 10 year study of NEAT was then performed.

While a large part of our nation's obesity problem originates with our super-sized food culture, the coffin is nailed shut with our low NEAT lifestyles. Most Americans spend the majority of their days sitting on their butts. The NEAT study demonstrated that your daily activities alone can change your caloric requirements by up to 1000 kilocalories (the actual scientific unit referred to simply as "calories" on food packaging) per day. What does that mean? Quite simply, it means a highly active person can eat a lot more food and still stay thin.

Since the conclusion of the NEAT study in mid-2005, Dr. Levine's group has worked on ways of changing our living and work environments such that people's NEAT energy usage can be significantly increased. As part of this work, they have dreamed up an office of the future concept. One piece of this concept is the computer-desk treadmill combination, which allows you to work on your computer while using the treadmill.

This simple innovation is pure genius. Like many people, I spend at least 10 hours every day sitting at a computer. This is a way to have my cake and eat it too; a way to do the sedentary activity I love while also getting enough physical activity into my day to get healthy, all without traditional exercise. I had to try it.

However, there was a slight problem: these treadmill desks are not yet available. So I built my own.

The first step was to buy a treadmill. I bought a Weslo Cadence 78e, which ran about $400 with the extended 3-year warranty. I normally don't buy extended warranties but since the standard warranty was just 90 days and this is a mechanical product which I plan to put a lot of miles on, I figured that it was a smart move in this case.

Once I had the treadmill, the next thing to do was to build the desk to go with it. After pondering this for sometime and coming up with some rather elaborate (and expensive) designs, I decided to start with a very basic prototype instead. The treadmill is still a treadmill without the desk. However, if I were to decide that this whole treadmill desk thing wasn't workable, I would end up with an expensive desk with working surfaces far too high to be of any use.

So, I sketched out a basic design consisting of an adjustable work surface and an adjustable shelf to hold my computer and monitor. Then I made my way to Home Depot to pick up the following:

  1. Seven 2"x3"x8' Studs @ $1.95 = 13.65
  2. Two 4' Shelving Uprights @ $2.95 = 5.90
  3. One 2' Shelving Upright @ $2.17 = 2.17
  4. Five 12" Shelving Brackets @ $1.80 = 9.00
  5. Two 48" Shelves @ $8.27 = 16.94

Adding in the sales tax, all of that came to $51.59. So, all told, this contraption has cost me about $450USD, thus far.

A shot of the frame, without the shelves:

A shot of the frame, with the shelves:

A shot of the completed project, with the treadmill and my Mac mini in place:

So, how well does this scheme work? In the month and a half I've had it, I've had a net weight loss of 16 pounds, without dieting. I probably would have lost a bit more if not for the fact that this time includes a week-long out-of-town vacation where I gained back 4 pounds which then had to be burned off again.

I generally spend between one and three hours using the treadmill every evening. I do confess that this device has led to a slight cut back of my computer use when at home.

From a usability standpoint, I find it to be pretty good, with a few snags. I have no problems typing or reading while walking. However, I did have some difficulty using my optical mouse. Due to the top heavy and slightly flimsy design of the desk, combined with the fact that I'm walking while using it, I have found accurate mousing to be a challenge. My solution was to circumvent this by dumping my mouse for a Fellowes hand-held trackball. After a period of adjustment and tweaking settings, I have found this to be a far more usable mousing solution.

Going forward, I expect to continue enjoying my NEAT desk. This entire post was composed while walking on it. At some point I'm going to replace the prototype frame desk with my more elaborate design but for now the prototype does the job well.