If you’re having a hard time motivating yourself to embrace a new fitness routine, don’t give up on the plan. Instead, try taking some small steps in the course of your normal daily routine. “Small bouts of activity make movement a more normal part of your life,” says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, the author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. “We’re creatures of habit. So if you take the stairs one day you’re more likely to take them again the next day. After a while you won’t do it consciously, it simply becomes part of your normal repertoire.”
By now, we all know the value of improving our physical fitness. In a major study released last year, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center analyzed the Medicare claims of more than 18,000 men and women who, around age 50, had taken a treadmill test to measure their cardiovascular fitness. They discovered that midlife fitness was a strong predictor of avoiding eight major chronic conditions after 65, including heart and kidney disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and colon and lung cancer. In other words, by getting fit and staying fit throughout middle age, we can shrink the amount of time we’ll ever have to spend living with chronic illness.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all adults age 18-64 to get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. You may feel you’re too set in your ways to reach that goal, but with the right steps, it’s possible to completely change your mindset, Lombardo says. “We only think we’re set in our ways,” she says. “That excuse limits you. Basing your future on what you’ve done in the past is like driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror.”
Lombardo recommends you start incorporating fitness into your life by combining everyday activities with an exercise. Here are 10 quick and surprisingly easy ways to do it:
1. Improve your posture when you look in the mirror each morning. Orthopedic surgeon Michael Shepard of the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, Calif., recommends that you do scapular squeezes when you stand in front of the mirror at the start of each day. Here’s how: Retract your shoulders into a good posture position, put your chin up, put your pelvis in a neutral position and fire your core muscles by contracting your abdominals. Among the other benefits of working on your posture, Shepard says, it can ease back pain.
2. Squat while brushing your teeth. Practicing squats while doing simple activities — like brushing your teeth, talking on the phone or waiting for commercials to end — reinforces the mechanics of rising and sitting, says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein, the founder of the Nashville fitness facility S.T.E.P.S. When squats are done slowly, he says, they can increase strength in knees weakened by arthritis or past injury. Start by bending at the knees and hips and lowering yourself into a squat position while keeping your back straight and eyes focused straight ahead. Then pause in the squat position before standing up straight. Try to work in six to eight repetitions in each set.
3. Stand on one leg at the sink. “‘Stork stances’ reinforce the neuromuscular control around the ankle, knee and hip that helps us maintain one-leg support during normal activities,” Rubenstein says, increasing what he calls “functional fitness.” Taking a stork stance while performing kitchen tasks, like chopping vegetables or washing dishes, also gives you easy access to a stable surface in case you need balance assistance.
4. Stretch at your desk. While you’re working, Shepard advises, take periodic breaks to do additional scapular squeezes, along with wrist stretches. Bring one arm out straight in front of you, parallel to the floor, palm facing out, as if trying to stop traffic. Increase the stretch by using the other hand to gently pull your extended fingers toward you. Then reverse it by turning your hand palm up and, again using the opposite hand, gently pressing your fingers toward you. Hold each stretch for a few seconds, then switch hands.
5. Keep small exercise equipment in your living room. No one wants to turn his or her house into a gym. On the other hand, placing a few small pieces of equipment around your living room, like dumbbells, leg weights, steps and rotational discs, can provide some motivation while watching TV. (Get some ideas from our guide to the 10 top tools to help you get fit at home.) “They will be difficult to avoid when you’re looking right at them,” suggests Michelle Gray, co-director of the Office for Studies on Aging at the University of Arkansas. If you really don’t want exercise gear cluttering your home, she suggests, make time to perform short activities that get your heart rate up but require little or no space or equipment, like jumping jacks.
6. Use phone calls as a signal to stand up and get moving. If you’re on the phone a lot during the day, commit to standing and walking whenever you’re talking. It will go a long way toward meeting the goal of 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity suggested by the CDC and the American College of Sports Medicine. As you get more comfortable talking and moving, increase the cardio activity by incorporating high-stepping or walking lunges into your calls. Or if money and space allow, consider purchasing one of the new breed of “standing” or “walking” desks, like the TrekDesk, which enable you to walk while you work.
7. Do leg raises during commercials. The quadriceps muscles in the front of the thighs diminish in size and strength to a greater degree than our hamstrings as we age, Rubenstein says, “so anything we can do to keep those muscles working, especially the muscles on the inside of the front of the knee, is useful. These work particularly well for people with chronic knee problems due to arthritis.” Here’s what to do: Lie on your back with one leg straight and the other bent at the knee, with the foot flat on the floor. Then tighten your abdominals as you raise your straight leg to a 45-degree angle (not fully straight up) and hold the position for three to five seconds before slowly lowering your leg. Aim for 10 to 15 repetitions for each leg.
8. Make grocery hauling a workout. We know it already feels like a workout, but let’s make it official: Carry groceries from your car to your kitchen one bag at a time, advises certified personal trainer Jason Stella, and see how fast you can complete the task. Record your time after every trip and see if you can beat it the next week. Or to expand the workout, carry bags into the house, then back out and inside again.
9. Take time to dance. While doing chores, cooking or just enjoying some quiet downtime, put on some upbeat music and dance around the house, Stella suggests. Dancing your way from room to room is an excellent and varied cardio workout. By dancing through one four-minute song four times a day, you’ll get more than halfway to your daily aerobic target of 30 minutes.
10. Warm up inside before stepping out. As you get more comfortable with indoor cardio activities, it’s only natural to want to take your exercise on the road. But if you’re getting back to an outdoor brisk-walking or running routine after years away, it’s important to warm up before heading out. Warming up helps decrease injury, prepares the nervous system for activity and gets arthritic joints moving. And it’s easy enough to do inside. If you have a stationary exercise bike in your basement, a five-minute ride is an excellent total body warm-up, Shepard says. A brisk five minutes of walking in place will also do the job.