What if every move you made counted as exercise? “We lead busy, time-pressed lives and we’re just not moving enough,” says Martin Gibala, a kinesiology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. and one of the authors of a new study that found “exercise snacks” (climbing 60 stairs, three times a day, three days a week) lead to a five percent increase in cardiorespiratory fitness in sedentary adults. “We’re not pretending this will solve our inactivity crisis, but it shows that even brief bouts of relatively vigorous activity can make a difference,” he says. Gibala’s study is in line with a September editorial in the British Medical Sports Journal that extolled the virtues of incidental physical activity—everyday actions like lugging groceries or running for the bus.
Considering that a sedantary lifestyle leads to everything from obesity and diabetes to an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, we need to get a move on, any way we can. “We need to rethink physical activity—it isn’t something that requires a special space, extra time or fancy equipment,” Gibala says. “It’s something you can do on your own, anytime, anywhere.”
Here are some tips for sneaking some extra fitness in your day.
If you’re talking on the phone, walk and talk, or if you’re watching your kid’s soccer game, do a few laps around the field instead of standing on the sidelines. “Combining activity with something you have to do anyway is a great way to fit more movement into your day,” he says.
Every time you get up from your desk at the office, climb a flight of stairs or take a longer route to the bathroom, says Matthew Stork, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. “If you do that five or six times during the work day, it can make a big difference.”
Make a plan
Leave your running shoes by the door or keep a pair under your desk as a reminder to move more. It also helps to program regular reminders into your devices, Stork says. Set your phone to buzz every hour to tell you it’s time to leave your chair. A 2018 study published in the journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition found that three, five-minute callisthenic exercise breaks during a 50-minute lecture helped students pay better attention and they retained more information even 48 hours later compared to students who had no exercise breaks or whose breaks involved playing computer games instead of exercising.
Start with small, specific, attainable goals and build on them. Maybe you start by taking 10,000 steps a day, then build to 12,000, or plan on a 15-minute walk every night after dinner, then increase it to 30 minutes. “Once you reach a certain level of fitness, ask yourself, ‘What can I do to take it to the next level and further reduce my risk of disease?’” Gibala says.
“Biofeedback, whether it’s a smart watch or a heart-rate monitor, helps you track your progress and keeps you motivated to move more,” Stork says. And these apps and monitors can often remind us to get up and move if we’ve been still for too long.
Coping planning is a technique that helps you anticipate where your activity goals might get derailed so you can come up with alternative options, Stork says. “It helps to think, ‘If x happens, then I will do y.’” For example, if you’re travelling and know you’ll miss your regular workout, download one to your phone to do in your hotel room.
“Try to huff and puff and get out of your comfort zone regularly,” Gibala says. If you normally walk to the bus stop, pick up the pace to get your heart rate up, or add an extra block on your brisk walk to work.
Embrace the idea of perusing a “movement menu” to keep from falling into an exercise rut, Stork says. “Just like we do with food, we can create a menu of different types of physical activity that we can choose from, depending on the situation.” Studies show that engaging in a variety of activities is more motivating and makes exercise goals easier to adhere to.
And remember that everything counts
To achieve health benefits you only need a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (in bouts of 10 minutes or more each week). And it’s easier than you might think. Gardening, shopping, walking all count. The range of calories you burn will depends on your size, age and gender.
Vacuuming — a 2017 Lancet study found 30 minutes of movement a day to raise your heart rate (household chores included!) reduces your risk of heart disease by 20 percent and your risk of death in general by 28 percent. Thirty minutes of vacuuming burns about 119 calories. This helps boost circulation.
Grocery shopping (with a cart) — Shopping burns an average of 130 calories in 30 minutes (amp it up and add some resistance by carrying a basket). This helps with circulation.
Gardening — Getting your hands dirty qualifies as moderate- to-high intensity exercise, according to a 2014 study in HortTechnology. Plus, it’s mild cardio, helps with flexibility (all that bending over) and provides resistance training (carting those bags of dirt).
Stairs — 10 minutes of climbing stairs at a comfortable pace burns about 80 to 100 calories. Take them two at a time to boost your heart rate and engage your quads, glutes, calves and hamstrings. This is great for cardio and muscle tone.
Soccer — Casually kicking a ball around for 20 minutes is good for your cardiovascular system.
Running — Compared to walking, running places a higher demand on the cardiorespiratory system. It offers great cardio. Plus you can add some muscle-toning with strength-training exercises, like lunges, squats, push-ups and V-sits.
Spinning — According to Harvard Medical School, spinning is good for both your heart and leg muscles while being easier on the joints. You can burn as many as 600 calories in an hour.
Tabata — A study in the journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that a 20-minute Tabata session (a High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT workout featuring rounds of body-weight and plyometric exercises), improves cardiorespiratory endurance while burning 240 to 360 calories in 20 minutes. It’s also great for flexibility, circulation and muscle building.