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Think like a cat or pick up marbles with your toes: how to maximise your incidental exercise

You don’t have to be grunting in a gym or grinding out the laps of the park to get a sweat on. Incidental exercise can be just as beneficial, and much easier to incorporate into daily routines. “It’s any activity that is part of daily living,” says Prof Emmanuel Stamatakis, an expert in physical activity at the University of Sydney, “rather than something that is done for the purpose of fitness, health or entertainment.”

Stamatakis tells me that incidental exercise, which is termed “intermittent lifestyle physical activity” by academics, is under-researched. But a paper he co-authored in 2018 found that sudden bursts of high-intensity incidental exercise – bounding up a flight of stairs, for example – could be highly beneficial from a health point of view, undermining the long-held belief that physical activity has to last at least 10 minutes to be worthwhile. “All physical activity counts and has a health benefit,” says Stamatakis. But how best to incorporate more incidental exercise to your life? The experts weigh in.

Rise and tense

Rise and tense, not rise and shine ...
Rise and tense, not rise and shine … Photograph: Flashpop/Getty Images

“The glute bridge is the No 1 exercise I recommend for people in the morning before they get out of bed,” says the personal trainer Shelly Davies. “Wake up, stretch and do a glute bridge.” To perform a glute bridge, lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor or bed and lift your knees, hips and shoulders off the floor, while squeezing the muscles in your bum. Davies specialises in training people over 60, and, with the help of morning glute-bridges, she has helped them rebuild their core strength. “I have a 93-year-old client who does three glute bridges in the morning before she gets out of bed,” Davies says. “She used to have to use an aide to help her up. Now, she can sit up and roll out of bed herself.”

“You’d be surprised by how much energy you burn off doing household chores,” says Nicole Booth, a personal trainer and lecturer at Lancaster University. “Simple things like weeding in the garden or spring-cleaning are great ways to get active. Plus, getting up and moving around can help alleviate chronic back pain.”

Think like a cat

Ever noticed how your cat stretches itself out after a nap? Be more like a cat. “People forget it’s important to stretch every day, too,” says Booth. “Animals instinctively do this when they wake, but as humans we have forgotten or pushed this to one side. A minute of stretching to prevent tightness can help us focus how we are feeling physically and plan out our day. It doesn’t have to be a yoga sequence or specific format.”

Hard and fast is better

When out walking, try to get out of breath for a few minutes ...
When out walking, try to get out of breath for a few minutes … 

“Not all physical activity is the same,” says Stamatakis. “Intensity is important.” A gentle stroll to the corner shop will not do much long-term for your fitness; however, if you decide you’re going to walk there as fast as possible, then you’re racking up your high-intensity incidental exercise quota. “Try to get out of breath for a few minutes,” says Stamatakis, “then go back to a normal walking place.”

Ditch the car

“Replace car trips with walking and cycling,” says Stamatakis. “For most people, it’s perfectly achievable to walk or cycle for a short journey of one-two miles.”

And the lift

Ditch the lift ...
Ditch the lift … 

“Stairs will often take less time than using lifts,” says Stamatakis. “And it’s fantastic high intensity exercise that can cause measurable improvements in the cardiorespiratory system for most people.” Plus, stairs are more Covid-friendly; who wants to be in an enclosed space with strangers?

Make the most of dead time

If you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, do something ...
If you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, do something … 

“If you’re brushing your teeth in the evening,” says Davies, “why not do some squats while you’re at it?” For her older clients, Davies suggests sit-to-stands: that’s sitting down then standing up before eating a meal. “Make sure you squeeze your bum when you do stand up,” she says. When waiting for a kettle to boil, Davies encourages her older clients to work on their balance. “By standing on one leg for 30 seconds at a time while waiting for a kettle to boil, you’re strengthening your core,” she says.

Netflix and sweat

There’s plenty you can do while cueing up yet another Netflix series. “I have a client who’s 86 and has problems with her feet,” says Davies. “I tell her to pick up marbles with her toes when watching TV, to strengthen her feet.”

Don’t sit at home on your backside all day. “If you’re sitting at home watching TV,” says Booth, “get up in between episodes and walk around. Set a target to do mini-tasks. Fill a small glass of water, have a little dance with the children.”

Above all, move. “Exercise doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” says Booth. “Anything you can do is progress.” So, get moving. You don’t even have to leave your house – or turn off the TV.

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