Body and Mind : an article from The Observer with 23 easy ways to get fitter, stronger and more flexible without going to the gym
Easy does it: 23 nifty fitness hacks for busy lives
How to get fitter, stronger and more flexible without going anywhere near the gym
by Amy Fleming in The Observer on 16th July 2023
Like buying hats or undergarments, staying healthy is not a one-size-fits-all situation. This is as true for diet and mood as it is for exercise, which is why behavioural scientists advise that the key to keeping fit is finding exercise that works for you. The truly excellent news is that even if you’re gym-phobic, unwilling to commit to team sports, averse to jogging or just plain short of time, physical activity is equally valid when split into bijou stints woven seamlessly and conveniently throughout your day.
Long gone, says Marie Murphy, professor of exercise and health at Ulster University, is the notion that you’ve got to sweat for at least 20 minutes for it to be worthwhile: 10-minute sessions are equally good, and even just a few minutes will still serve us well.
Murphy uses the analogy that if you look after the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves. Official UK weekly guidelines are for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, 75 minutes’ vigorous activity, or a mixture of both, with strengthening exercises and reduced periods of sitting. You can easily beat that with short bursts throughout the day, and there’s no need for special kit. “If you don’t have much time, but are physically able, then you can do things like running up a couple of flights of stairs or other small bouts,” says Murphy.
Cumulative exercise may even have the edge over lumping all your activity into one session. “Even if you’re a marathon runner, if you then sit for prolonged periods, then that has an effect on your health,” she says. “By breaking up your sitting with short bouts, there’s an advantage over other forms of exercise.”
In that spirit of short and sweet, here are 23 exercises you can fit into your day while life carries on:
1.Sit on the floor while watching TV
Get off the sofa and sit on the floor in a variety of positions. This gives you a stretch, ensures better posture and increases muscle activity, says mobility coach Roger Frampton. Try legs straight out in front, the lotus position (or school-assembly style cross-legged), kneeling down or even squatting – how we used to sit before chairs were invented. A low squat unkinks your lower bowel and will benefit hips, knees, ankles, quads, glutes and core muscles. If you can’t get your feet flat on the ground when squatting, prop them up on books and gradually lower as your body learns the shape.
2. Use the stairs for calf raises
This is an effective way to strengthen calf muscles and hamstrings. Stand with the balls of your feet near the edge of the bottom step, lower your heels as far as you can before lifting them as high as you can. Too easy? Hold weights while doing it, or do one leg at a time.
3. Fit in several side leg raises
It’s hard to reach those outer thigh muscles and hip abductors that keep the hip stable, but this is the exercise to do it. The best-known version involves lying on your side and raising the top leg between 10 and 30 times – as a bonus, you get to feel like you’re recreating a 1980s Jane Fonda workout. You can also do them standing, hands on hips, or – to really feel the burn – in a side-plank position, with your lower hip raised off the floor.
4. Grab a tea towel for a shoulder opener after doing the dishes
For a perfect antidote to sunken, rounded shoulders, stretch a tea towel out in front of you and slowly raise your arms over your head. Then, bending your arms, lower the towel behind your head and tap the back of your neck with it before trying to move the towel backwards, away from the neck.
5. Walk up the escalator
A simple policy of not letting lifts and escalators do the work for you can help you shed weight – . According to Duke University, two flights a day over a year can lead to almost 3kg of weight loss and boost aerobic capacity. Stair-climbing women tend to have better bone density, too. Tip: take each step with flat feet to use your glutes more.
6. Stand on one leg when you brush your teeth
This feat of coordination provides a proper brain workout, improving neuroplasticity, according to researchers at Hamburg University. There’s the option to close your eyes to make it much more challenging, or for a leg-strengthening vibe, bend your standing leg in a mini one-legged squat.
7. Learn to do a handstand
Mastering handstands is a confidence booster while providing the mind-clearing focus of balancing and full body work. Start with a wall handstand or a wall pike handstand. To check how far from the wall your hands need to be, sit with your bottom against a wall, legs out in front – your hands need to be level with where your feet are. Facing away from the wall, plant your hands on the floor and walk your feet up the wall until they’re level with your shoulders and slowly straighten your legs so your torso is stacked neatly above your shoulders. Practise bending your legs and straightening them again.
8. Wall press-ups with spine stretch
This, says physio Matt Todman, gives you the benefits of a press up, while tackling tightness in the thoracic spine, between the shoulders. Stand facing the wall with your feet at least a foot and a half away (the further you go, the harder it gets). Place your palms on the wall at shoulder height and do a press up – but here’s the twist. As you push away, take one hand back 180 degrees behind you, before heading back for another press up and switching sides. You’ll strengthen your shoulders, arms and chest, improving stability around your shoulder blades.
9. Take the stairs two at a time
You probably used to do this when your were a child, but you still should if you can. It saves time, makes you feel springy, burns more calories and works your muscles even more than walking up stairs. Taking bigger steps should, however, be approached with caution if you have knee problems or trouble balancing, as it requires (but also builds) greater stability in the hips.
10. Imagine your head is suspended from a golden thread
We all need to resist the slouch, and the posture plumb line is here to help. This visualisation has a ripple effect, lifting the crown of your head, settling your shoulders back – chest lifted a little – and using your core and glutes to sit or stand straight. Treat it as a postural reset, though, rather than a position to hold rigid – movement and variety are our musculoskeletal best friends.
11. Master the sit-to-stand test
Worth it for the bragging rights alone, this is often touted as a longevity indicator (although there are many caveats to the 2012 study that posited it as one, such as most people who couldn’t do it and then died were the oldest in the 51-80 age-range). If a knee or hip injury counts you out, don’t panic, but if you have no physical reasons to avoid it, you might as well start practising: sit on the floor cross legged, place your feet on the floor, and hoick yourself up without touching the floor with your hands or elbows – a feat of balance, core and lower body strength to be proud of.
12. Do squats while the kettle boils
This is a high-reward habit, powering up muscles in the lower body and core, strengthening tendons, ligaments and bones while burning calories. For the basic squat, stand with feet hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out. Keep your chest up as you lower yourself, stopping when your heels want to lift or your torso wants to flounder. “Try to keep your knees over your ankles,” says Todman, and push through your heels to lift back up. To ease into squats, try with a chair behind you, touching your bottom to the seat before standing up again. If you want to get the blood pumping, jump as you come up.
13. Keep circling your feet
It may disturb you to know that after you’ve sat down for 90 minutes, blood circulation behind the knees is halved. Circling those feet will increase blood flow and do wonders for foot and ankle strength and flexibility.
14. Do pull-ups in the doorway
Not for everyone, but this is a top posture-boosting workout for your chest, shoulders and abs, not to mention a handgrip strength builder – a biomarker for general health. Put a pull-up bar in a doorway and every time you pass under it, jump up and catch the bar, cross your feet for stability and pull up on an exhale until your chin reaches the bar, then gently lower yourself back down. Beginners, keep a box handy and start with elbows already bent. Warm up with arm circles on the approach.
15. Stretch your hip flexors
Chair sitting is a recipe for tight, sore hips, so try this favourite move from Frampton: face the wall with one foot and knee touching it. Take a big step back with your other leg and lean your body away from the wall, your shoulders a little behind your hips to feel a satisfying stretch in the back hip. The further back your foot is, the more intense the stretch.
16. Drink lots of water
The well-hydrated lifestyle is accidentally more active. All those bottle refilling and loo trips add up. It’s free exercise on tap.
17. Make phone calls on the hoof
An easy habit to redirect deadening sitting time is to stand up for phone calls. Walk around the room, pace up and down the hall, take it outside if the conditions are right. There’s a reason walking and talking go so well together – moving about sharpens our senses and, according to neuroscientist Shane O’Mara of Trinity College, sets off theta brainwaves that assist with learning and memory.
18. The broom handle flat-back test
Physios will tell you it’s not about how far you get in a forward bend, but doing it with a flat back. If you have to round your back to touch your toes, it doesn’t count. Hold a broom handle vertically behind you so it touches your head and lower back. Now bend forward, keeping the broom in position. Anything past 90 degrees is decent. Do it every day and your tight hamstrings will thank you for the gentle loosener.
19. Anytime neck strengthening
Isometric exercises don’t involve movement or contracting muscles and, says Todman, can ease a stiff neck better than stretching. Hold your right hand against the side of your head, above your ear, and then try to push your head as hard as you can into your hand. Your head isn’t moving, but you’re making the muscles work hard. Hold for 20 or 30 seconds, and then stop and enjoy the relaxation in your shoulders. Do both sides and try front and back if you fancy.
20. Do star jumps while you wait for your toast to pop up
An oldie but a goodie, this high-impact cardio exercise does great things for your aerobic capacity, metabolism and mood.
21. Don’t forget your pelvic floor
Grab the back of a chair and slowly go up on tiptoes. As you rise, suck in your core and pelvic floor (for people with testicles, this means trying to lift them). Hold for up to 10 seconds, then relax as you lower your heels. Repeat 15 to 20 times.
22. Put prompts around the house
Get some coloured sticky dots. A yellow one on the kettle ensures you remember those squats, a blue one on the banister reminds you about the stair calf raises…
23. Keep things in awkward places
Rig your life to encourage movement. Park in the space furthest away from the shop, keep the remote control on top of the television and your phone and keys at the top of the stairs.
More tips from experts....
Roger Frampton, mobility coach
‘The biggest misconception is that we become inflexible as we age – movement mostly becomes harder as a result of not being active. Rather than static stretches, I focus on movements, particularly those that people lose as they get older. The body adapts at any age. One of the biggest things is balance, so standing on one leg is great, and you can do that in a variety of ways. Practising getting up and down off the floor is hugely important – try it in as many different positions as possible. When I put a floor exercise on social media, most of the comments will be: how do you get there? I get the biggest responses to any posts to do with touching your toes.’
Roger Frampton is the author of The Flexible Body and Stretch (roger.coach)
Vanessa Reid, physiotherapist and pilates instructor
‘The core is central to so many of our bodies’ functions. That’s your pelvic floor, abdominals and lower back muscles, too. The main area to focus on is protecting both posture and your body’s long-term movement abilities. That’s why I started teaching Pilates to my clients. Apart from lower-back protection, a strong core will also help stave off incontinence, support better posture and reduce neck tension as you age. Every time you get up from your desk, try going from sitting to standing three or four times before actually moving away. When sitting, you’re likely to be leaning forward – your core is not engaged. Try perching on a big ball, to ensure you’re always in movement. Standing desks are also great, your weight regularly shifting sides. It’s subtle, but it helps. And any planking is worthwhile.
For information, go to perkypilates.com
David Wilson, movement coach
‘I try to remove rules and regulations that might crush motivation: exercise in a way that makes you eager, excited and able to do it again tomorrow. Embrace your inner child. In the morning, when I get up, I wiggle – it’s so liberating to move your body with no protocols or rules. Pay attention to the areas you rarely find yourself engaging. With joints you use regularly, can they be engaged in other ways? It’s about movement variation. Our bodies are miraculous, but will only support us in ways we ask them to. One day I might crawl on the floor, lift kettlebells the next, then sprint or do football drills after that. Find what areas of your body aren’t being given a workout and fill in those gaps.
Follow David @oldscoolmoves
Matt Todman, physio
‘Brushing our teeth twice a day is a habit drilled into us, but it’s such a shame exercises aren’t drilled into us the same way. When I qualified 30 years ago, I looked after Second World War veterans who had learned in the army to move every day – squats, pull-ups, running on the spot – and that gave them greater longevity. The most common complaints I see are neck, back, hip and knee pain. Most people have stiff thoracic spines (in the upper back), and that’s because of posture. Our necks and lower backs move more to compensate, so if you can keep your thoracic spine mobile, that solves lots of potential problems. Little and often is best when you’re aiming for quality of movement, not quantity – it trains your brain to perceive and direct movement better.
Matt Todman is the director of Six Physio (sixphysio.com)
Eat, sleep and be mindful - diet, mindset and a good night’s rest are all crucial to our body’s health, too
Professor Tim Spector, geneticist
The impact of exercise on our health has had much better attention than the importance of our diet has. Without a good diet to support our exercise efforts, we won’t feel or see the benefits that exercise brings. Overall fitness levels are closely linked to our daily movement and the fuel for that movement comes from the foods we eat, making meal and movement timing closely linked to best health outcomes. For more strenuous and weight-bearing exercise, the quality of the foods we eat has a huge impact on how quickly we recover, repair and strengthen our muscles. Moving away from ultra-processed protein supplements and bars is essential. High-quality, energy-dense foods include whole grains, chickpeas, lentils and beans as well as whole fruits, and examples of foods to eat around exercise include a beetroot, feta and hazelnut salad; kefir, berries and mixed nuts; or mushroom and spinach omelette with kimchi
Professor Ellen J Langer, mindfulness expert
The mind and body are best understood as a single unit. Wherever you put the mind, you put the body, too. I first tested this out many years ago: we fitted out a retreat as if it was 20 years in the past and had old men live there as if their younger self. As a result, their hearing, vision, strength and memory improved. A later study I did with chambermaids had similar results. When asked how much exercise they got at work, most said none. Then, we taught them that their work was in fact exercise. By changing their mindset, they lost weight, dropped BMI and saw their blood pressure reduced. Every thought has a corresponding bodily effect. The best advice I can give is this: every time you do anything – look outside, meet a friend, cook, whatever – look for three new things. Notice new details; new traits in those around you; new sensations. That’s mindfulness. Allow your brain to always be learning and discovering. This “active noticing” sees neurons firing, which can see you live longer and healthier.
Ellen J Langer is the author of Mindfulness and Counter Clockwise
Dr Azizi Seixas, sleep expert
Sufficient and high-quality sleep is a fundamental pillar of maintaining fitness, good health, physical recovery and rejuvenation. During sleep, our bodies repair tissues, restore energy levels, and strengthen the immune system. Sleep plays a vital role in cognitive function and mental wellbeing. It’s also closely linked to weight management and metabolic health – inadequate sleep disrupts hormonal balance, leading to increased appetite, cravings for unhealthy foods, and a higher risk of obesity and diabetes. Lack of sleep can compromise immune function, making us more susceptible to illness and infection. Establish a consistent sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day – even at the weekend. Create a sleep-friendly environment that is cool, dark and free from distractions. Limit exposure to electronic devices before bed. Practise relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or mindfulness, to promote a calm and peaceful state before sleep. draziziseixas.com