The Best Exercises to Sneak Into Your Workday

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

You don’t need a gym membership, equipment or even a big chunk of time to reap the rewards of exercise. In fact, you can squeeze some of the best moves for your body into a busy workday. The key is remembering that “all movement counts,” says NiCole Keith, president of the American College of Sports Medicine and kinesiology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Here are three simple exercises you can easily add to any workday—without cutting too much into your calendar.

Walk more

Walking is one of the simplest, most accessible ways to increase your activity. Adding more steps to your day has been found to boost your metabolism and decrease your risk of chronic diseases like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. A 2008 analysis of studies, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that just 20 minutes of moderate-intensity walking per day was associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease and death during the study periods. Brisk walking was associated with even better health outcomes. (In this analysis, the terms “moderate” and “brisk” generally referred to subjective effort rather than pace.) Walking can also enhance mood, reduce stress and improve sleep. If you make it outside, even better. “Getting fresh air is huge” for mental health, says Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer based in San Francisco.

Carving out time for a stroll isn’t the only way to add steps into your day, though. If your workplace has more than one restroom, choose the farther one, Keith suggests. You could also add more walking to your commute; public transit users can try getting off one stop early, and drivers can park farther away from their destination.

Even if you’re working from home, there’s plenty you can do to add to your step count. While no one is suggesting you give a sales presentation from your treadmill, you might consider embracing multitasking to get in more steps. “There’s no rule that says you have to sit down every time you take a call,” Roser says. Pace around your office or go walk outside if you don’t need to be at your desk while chatting.

The standard step tracker suggests 10,000 steps per day. But if that goal intimidates you, Roser has simpler advice: “Get more than you’re getting now.”

Take the stairs

Adding stair climbing into your routine doesn’t require any special equipment (or a post-workout shower). Just take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible, Keith suggests. If you don’t want to get sweaty during your workday, simply stop before you perspire, she says. To get the benefits of stair climbing, “you don’t have to break a sweat, you just have to be breathing a little harder.”

Even low- or moderate-intensity stair climbing increases blood flow, which promotes both heart health and brain function. Increased alertness, better decision-making and enhanced creativity are among the mental benefits you experience “every time you get up and start moving,” Keith says.

If you want to rev up your heart rate and generate some internal heat, try a Tabata workout, suggests Tasha Edwards, a health coach and certified personal trainer based in Huntsville, Ala. Exercise for 20 seconds, then back off the pace or rest for 10 seconds, and repeat for four minutes. The beauty of Tabata, says Edwards, is its structure. “You’re liable to work hard because you realize it’s only 20 seconds at a time.”

Pop some squats

Squats work your entire lower body, including muscles you use all day long. The muscles you engage when squatting are the same ones you need to get on and off the toilet, stand up from a chair or lift a bag of pet food. The benefits of squats and other forms of strength training include improved bone density, cardiovascular health and mood.

If you picture heavy barbells and strenuous sessions when you think of squats, think again. You can get many of the benefits with easier sets whenever you can sneak them into your day; for example, if you did 12 body-weight squats every two hours, you could squeeze in 48 squats over an eight-hour workday. “These little ‘movement snacks’ add up over time,” says Kristin Oja, a nurse practitioner and personal trainer.

To make squats easier on your knees or for extra support, try a chair-up instead. From a seated position, simply stand up from your chair—holding onto your desk for balance if necessary—and repeat.

“If you want to increase the load or the work on a muscle group, all you have to do is slow down your tempo,” says Oja. Instead of moving quickly, count to three as you squat down, then hold at the bottom for a full second before slowly returning to standing.

Roser recommends turning household items into weights. She has her clients squat while wearing backpacks or holding jugs of laundry detergent.

Not sure when to squeeze in your squats? Edwards suggests pairing them with another habit already in your repertoire. For example, she performs 25 squats whenever she brushes her teeth. Or set a timer to beep at the top of every hour as a reminder to move. This is especially useful when you’re in “long meetings or [working on] a deadline,” says Edwards. Otherwise, “four hours go by,” and you’ve been seated—and getting stiffer—the entire time.

Whatever you do, the key to moving more is shifting your mindset. “We need to take ‘just’ and ‘only’ out of our vocabulary,” says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of The Micro-Workout Plan. “The secret to success is consistency.” The short, moderate workout you do always beats the long, intense session you skip.

Correction, February 22

The original version of this story mischaracterized how to do a Tabata workout. Rest intervals should be 10 seconds, not 40, and cycles should be repeated for four minutes.

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