06 January 2016

How to exercise without exercising

There’s a misconception that exercise is based around explicit and unique activities. To one point, it’s understandable why someone would, in efforts to increase strength would approach weight machines and a rack of dumbbells as the best way to do it. If greater endurance is the goal, then something that you wouldn’t do for any other reason than to build endurance, like jogging, makes perfect sense. 

On the other hand, this mentality can create a barrier for some. Treating exercise as a specific task can make it seem more daunting, or difficult to work into a busy schedule. The idea that someone may have trouble finding time for 3-4 hours of working out each week isn’t all that difficult to grasp when juggling family, work and leisure. Dropping stationary bike in front of a TV, or turning a walking session into a chance to catch up with a friend are highly common and highly recommended ways of mitigating these challenges.


This idea of recontextualising exercise can be taken even further however. Removing the “specificity” from exercise and embracing the overall function and purpose of exercise - to move and challenge the body physically, allows people to live exercise filled lifestyles with minimal burdens on time and psychological commitment. If you can remember that anything where you’re lifting heavy things, pushing the heart rate up in short bursts, and moving frequently at slow paces, it’s much easier to exercise more, without exercises at all. Here are some idea:

Housework - cleaning, mowing, gardening, etc.
If the definition of exercise boils down to any activity to requiring physical effort, housework fits the bill perfectly. Vacuuming, sweeping, and mopping take time, get your heart pumping and depending on the size and layout of your house, can involve a lot of lifting of heavy buckets of water or vacuum cleaners up and down stairs or in and out of sinks or tubs.

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Mowing the lawn, dumping the clippings and carrying around the edge trimmer can be so physically taxing of a workout, that the very nature of this task influences the type of houses people buy and where they choose to live. We always knew our fairly large yard took about two hours, but once we realised it also involved 6km of walking and over 9000 steps, it made mowing far less dreadful. It’s of course still a pain, but the simple psychological shift has allowed for greater motivation and has further improved the health of my body and property alike.

Whether it’s house cleaning, yard work or general repairs and renovations, embracing these activities as beneficial to your physical fitness is a fantastic way of not just exercising, but of getting things done. Two jobs that need to be done that can easily be too boring or time consuming to get done, are now covered simultaneously. Spend a couple hours turning soil and pulling weeds and you have a productive afternoon in a bit of nature and have a much improved garden. Spend the same amount of time, and physical exertion on an elliptical trainer and while it may have been a good workout, you have far less to show for it.

Playing with pets, kids, family, friends, etc.
Despite what conventional wisdom indicates, exercise isn’t about calories burned, but about movement. The concept of “calories in, calories out” is one so oversimplified, it’s borderline meaningless. While the basis for burning enough calories to offset the amount you take in is scientifically correct, the process by which calories, both in and out follow are far more complicated than needing to stay on a treadmill for a certain amount of time to work off that breakfast muffin.

In this light, the emphasis is again on frequent movement of various, spontaneous intensities integrated into your lifestyle. Among the best platforms for this, is play. While play is usually associated with children, it is undoubtedly one of the most time-tested and traditional cultural activities throughout history. Play gets incorrectly boxed in too strongly with physical activity and competition as its benefits go far beyond that, into the realms of creativity, competition, teamwork and many other psychological attributes applicable to everyday life. Stuart Brown, a psychologist who has dedicated decades to studying play’s beneficial properties to both personal therapy and business optimsation calls it a “profound biological process” and suggests that play continually shapes the human brain throughout our lifetime.

In his book Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul, Dr Brown provides the evidence that, even though for adults taking time to play with our friends, kids, family and pets is taken as an unproductive guilty pleasure only possible on vacations, it is anything but trivial. Play is a biological drive as integral to our health and development as sleep or nutrition. This goes beyond the common knowledge around brain-teasing puzzles such as jigsaws, riddles, and board games and marries the neurological challenges with the physical, social and emotional aspects of development strengthening the way we parent, educate, work and govern all layers of society.


We all know how important it is to find time for fun during a busy work schedule, but rather than framing play as an unimportant luxury you’re just too busy or tired for, make it a priority. Organise some two-on-two basketball, splash around in the pool with your kids, or run and roll around with your dogs. Doing so, won’t just benefit your mood, but will add to the health, wellbeing and even the productivity of you and everyone else involved - though, how advantageous play is to pets’ productivity is still under examination.

Last week, I asked everyone following my Healthy Forever Google+ Collection whether they considered housework as exercise. To my pleasant susprise, close to 80% of the near 200 votes at the time said yes. The reality is, that trying to keep all aspects of life compartmentalised as singular activities is rarely possible. Broadening our approaches to life, and in this case our exercise, allows us to cover more ground with less time.

For the record, I enjoy the gym, most of the time, which is the same for just about all forms of exercise or physical activity there is. If you’re a gym-rat and love nothing more than setting up a different day of the week to specific isolated muscle groups, congratulations, that’s awesome. A lot of people though, go through phases depending on their other responsibilities, money, the weather or motivation levels and while committing to the weekend road run or crossfit twice a week is obviously an admirable endeavor, it’s important to understand that exercise comes in many forms and therefore, with the right approach, doesn’t have to be all that time restrictive.

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