COVID-19 is already having a dramatic effect on our day-to-day lives, with the situation almost certainly set to get worse before it gets better. The schedules, systems, and structures we’ve adopted – such as doing a weekly food shop or attending regular personal training sessions – are all being impacted by the social isolation measures underway to protect the public and avoid our public services being overrun. So, what are the implications for our health and how can we, as personal trainers (PTs), ensure that we remain connected to our clients during this time?
The health of human beings is a very complex output of many inputs. In other words, it’s not just our aesthetics that determine if we’re healthy or not. Instead, we must look at the bigger picture, as identified by the biopsychosocial model of health. Factors such as biology, environment, and social relationships all play a part in how healthy we are. With that said, the current COVID-19 situation could potentially have an impact on many of our health inputs. One of the primary concerns for us, as health professionals, is the social isolation that many of our friends, family members, and clients may face, and the effect this will have on their physical activity, nutrition, sleep, and socialisation – four major pillars of health and fitness.
On a more personal level, it’s a worrying time for PTs as gyms may temporarily close, clients may fall out of their routines and become disengaged, and income for employed and self-employed trainers could be affected. Now is the time to start thinking about ways to keep our clients engaged, motivated, and committed during the ‘isolation phase’ – making sure that they return to us once the pandemic has passed. And I might just have a NEAT little trick…
What is NEAT?
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, which can also be referred to as ‘spontaneous physical activity.’ Essentially, it’s the amount of energy expended by activity that can’t be classed as deliberate exercise, such as mowing the lawn, tidying the house, or walking the dog. NEAT is just one of the factors that allow us, as trainers, to determine someone’s energy requirements; other areas of consideration are basal metabolic rate, thermic effect of feeding, and exercise activity thermogenesis. However, the interesting thing about NEAT is that it can vary greatly from person to person, but through active communication with our clients, we can increase awareness around what it is and how to apply it during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Does NEAT really work?
In a fitness industry where high-intensity training is king, people often forget about the benefits of low-intensity exercise or even routine daily activities. I completely understand that high-intensity exercise can increase oxygen consumption and, in turn, energy expenditure post-workout, but we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of more spontaneous, run-of-the-mill physical activity – especially in times when our own structures, systems, and schedules are being disrupted. Through increasing our individual NEAT, we can achieve the benefits of improved body composition, which include better cardiovascular health as well as better control of daily life function and mobility. One study published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal found that 30 minutes of walking – which could be classed as NEAT – increases the number of “killer blood cells” in the body that help to boost the immune system and fight off infection. Overall, increasing our energy expenditure through NEAT can improve biological, psychological, and social health.
What types of NEAT can be prescribed to clients?
There are many methods that our clients can use to increase their daily energy expenditure through NEAT. Popular methods – such as increasing step count, standing rather than sitting, and using public transport rather than driving – are all great strategies to incorporate, however, in these times of increasing isolation, some of them may not be practical or achievable. Thankfully, there’s much they can do within the confinement of their own homes, such as cooking, cleaning, gardening, walking up and down the stairs, and playing with their kids.
A NEAT method for clients to implement
I would suggest that for every 30 minutes someone is sedentary or in a fixed position, they must pay themselves back with two minutes of movement. I understand that this won’t always be possible, therefore, if someone is sedentary for 90 minutes, they must pay themselves back with six minutes of activity. Something else I’d advocate is trying to create some light-hearted competition between yourself, friends, and family members to add a little bit of fun and motivation in these otherwise worrying times. To give you an idea of how this could work, I would set an alarm to remind me to move every 30 minutes. When it goes off, I would perform some kind of NEAT or random exercise – such as skipping – for two minutes, record my score, and then send it to my social network to see if they can compete against me. Here’s an example of how this data could be recorded and shared with others:
Name – Martin
Duration – 2 minutes
Score – 95 skips
Can you beat it?
Human beings are social creatures; we evolved in small groups and genuinely depend on one another for survival. Much of the brain is devoted to communication – such as recognising faces, communicating verbally, listening, and understanding language – so this method will help to satisfy those natural needs.
Tracking NEAT can be a difficult task and there must be some accountability on the client’s behalf to trust the guidance they have been given and apply the strategies their PT has communicated to them. However, here are two ways in which we can maintain accountability within our networks:
- Set up a social group, using a messaging platform such as WhatsApp, and have clients post videos of themselves competing and moving
- Get clients to complete three activity diaries for the week to make them log their movements and daily tasks
Like any strategy a trainer prescribes, it’s important to make sure that the action steps given are small and sustainable, as well as familiar and predictable, for our clientele. This increases the chances of them being adhered to.
These are difficult times for the UK and global population. Our job, as trainers, is to act as a support network for our clients and use our education and experience to help them progress to their desired outcomes as best we can. One way to do that is to incorporate ways for them to increase their daily NEAT. COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon, so the quicker we can adapt as a nation to our ever-changing environment, the quicker we can get back to having consistent schedules, systems, and structures that help us to remain healthy and active.
By Martin Hamer, Health and Fitness Tutor for The Training Room