Less than a quarter of US adults meet weekly exercise guidelines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite most people understanding the health benefits of working out. So even though you know everyone should exercise regularly, chances are high that you have trouble motivating yourself to actually do it.
So what gives? There are a lot of reasons that people don’t exercise more. You may be short on time or energy, or you may not have the equipment that you feel like you need.
But while you might imagine sneakers, sports bras and weight benches when you think of “exercise,” you don’t have to hit the gym to meet the CDC’s guidelines for physical activity. In fact, the CDC’s 2018 National Health Statistics report, which contains that 23% statistic, doesn’t mention the word “exercise” once. Instead, it’s all about physical activity and movement — whether for work, play or by doctor’s orders.
For most of human history, physical activity was incorporated into people’s daily lives in the form of labor and chores. These days, people spend a lot more time sitting still on couches, desk chairs and cars. But our lives still require physical movement each day, and it can be easier to meet your daily exercise quota with activities that you need to do anyway (like mowing the lawn) than set aside extra time to do a dedicated workout.
Rethinking your idea of exercise might inspire you to get even more active — and you’re not necessarily missing out if you skip the gym in favor of sweeping. Here’s what to know.
Can daily activities really count as exercise?
Short answer: Yes. “Your body can’t tell the difference between bending over to pull out a weed and bending down to pick up a kettlebell,” explains Robert S. Herbst, a personal trainer and world champion powerlifter.
Experts divide exercise into two categories: formal exercise and informal exercise. According to Mike Murphy, owner and head physiotherapist of Ireland’s RAPID clinic, most people don’t see informal exercise as, well, actual exercise. “This may be because informal exercise is difficult to quantify — one hour walking seems easier to quantify than cleaning the house. But the reality is that many everyday tasks use up far more energy than light exercise,” Murphy said.
“Everyday walking up and down stairs, to the shops, carrying things, hanging clothes out to dry, etc. — all of these activities build up and over weeks and months these can significantly influence our energy balance (contributing significantly to weight gain or weight loss),” he continued.
In fact, even some formal workouts intentionally mimic the “primal movement patterns that represent our daily movement patterns for life,” such as squatting, pushing, pulling and twisting, as Brian Nunez, Nike master trainer and performance coach, put it. These programs are known as “functional training.” Meanwhile, a workout regimen that involves everyday activities rather than formal exercise is also called NEAT exercise, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
So, in short, don’t discount all the physical activities that you engage in without intending to exercise. Non-exercise activities are a great way to not only improve your health, but also complete tasks more easily and reduce your risk of injury (no more pulling a muscle carrying the groceries in).
Here are 10 everyday activities that count as exercise, according to experts.
Yard or lawn care
Anyone who’s ever mowed the lawn by hand in the height of summer knows that it’s a true workout. Nunez explains: “Aside from the low impact and cardiovascular benefits, mowing the lawn requires a lot of functional movement primal patterns in the process of setup, mowing the lawn and cleanup.”
Other types of yard work that are a great workout include gardening, weeding, shoveling snow or leaves and much more.
Who says your hour-long daily walk can’t be through the aisles of Target? Seriously, though, errands often involve plenty of walking, carrying, lifting and other movements.
Cleaning the house
Cleaning the house can involve a wide range of physical movements — going up and down stairs, carrying things from room to room, pushing and pulling the mop or broom and more.
Walking the dog
Need we say more? You may be more occupied with getting your pup exercise during their daily walk, but don’t forget that you’re getting your steps in at that time, too.
You may have heard that sitting for long periods of time is bad for you. But getting up and moving your body every 30 minutes or so is helpful, and walking is great exercise, period — whether it’s to the mailbox, down the hall to wave to your coworker or to grab a snack.
The ‘I’m late’ sprint
If you take public transportation regularly, you probably get a ton of light- to moderate-intensity activity throughout your days just by getting to the bus or train. And if you’re running late and have to jog a little, that’s all the more effort expended.
Playing with kids
Got kids in your life? Getting involved in their play, rather than watching from the nearest couch or bench, will have you out of breath pretty quickly.
Maybe you like to go out dancing, or maybe you’re more of the “solo dance party in your pajamas” type. Either way, know that dancing can be a full-body workout and great cardio, too.
Ever heard of “laughter yoga”? One 2014 study found that laughter yoga is a better ab workout than crunches or back lifting exercises. So, the more humor you find in your day, the better.
Sexual activity is also a moderate-intensity workout. Though, of course, it depends on the specific activity, it uses even more energy than weight training.
For more on staying fit without the gym, learn how to tell if you’re healthy without any tools or tests and which vitamins you should actually take.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.