You know you should do it: Get off the bus a stop or two early and walk the rest of the way to the office, or park your car at the far edge of the mall parking lot. But can this kind of everyday activity really be considered exercise? Can taking the stairs instead of the elevator really make you healthier and more fit?
"Absolutely," says exercise physiotherapist Geralyn Coopersmith, senior manager of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in New York and the author of Fit and Female: The Perfect Fitness and Nutrition Game Plan for Your Unique Body Type.
"You can get in shape and reduce your risk of developing heart disease or type 2 diabetes with everyday activities such as taking the stairs, walking more, and lifting your children," she tells WebMD.
"Will it prepare you for a marathon? Probably not," she quips. "But will it keep from dropping dead of a heart attack? Quite possibly."
Exercise: Every Little Bit Helps
The good news is there are lots of simple ways to sneak some easy exercise into your daily routine at home or work, she says.
"We are such an all-or-nothing society, but at the end of the day you are better suited to spend five minutes walking in place then to say 'I can't train for the marathon, so I am not going to do anything,'" Coopersmith says.
"Nothing is a problem, something is good, and more is better up to a point," adds exercise physiologist Robyn Stuhr, executive vice president of the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in San Diego, Calif. "I think people hesitate when they think they have blown a big workout opportunity, but you don't always need to do a whole routine. Anything you can do to increase activity over the course of the day is good."
If you really want to burn some calories? Climbing the stairs is a great weight loss exercise. "You can't beat them," she says. "Take every other step so you are really working your legs more. This can really make it a challenging workout."
Another idea for getting some easy exercise at home? Instead of fast-forwarding through commercials while watching your favorite shows on TIVO, "do jumping jacks or march in place during the commercial break. This type of activity really starts to add up," she says.
Still, when possible, it's best to keep moving for at least 10 minutes at a time.
"The guidelines state that we should aim for 30 minutes of moderately intense activity on five or more days of the week or vigorous activity for at least 20 minutes on three or more days of the week," says Ruth Ann Carpenter, MS, RD, LD, director of dissemination at The Cooper Institute in Dallas and author of Active Living Every Day. This can be done in 10 minute bouts, she adds.
"That's not to say a five-minute walk in the parking lot isn't going to help, but research suggests that a sustained 10-minute bout is needed," she says.
Pumping Kitty Litter Instead of Iron?
It may be a bit more challenging to work full-body strength training activities into your daily routine, says Carpenter.
"You are going to improve the strength of your lower body by taking the stairs compared with walking on level land," she says. But "there are not a lot of daily activities that involve upper body besides carrying the groceries and picking up kids."
Indeed, moms have no excuse not to strength train, Coopersmith says. "When you pick up your kid, you can use it as an opportunity to do a squat," she says. "Pick up your kid by bending down at your legs and then driving up from your knees and hips."
Stuhr agrees: "We always say that babies are the perfect progression in a strength training program because as they get heavier, you get stronger."
But even if you don't have children or groceries to lift, you can fit in some easy strength-training exercises by lifting everyday items at home.
"Whether it's your cat's litter or a huge thing of laundry detergent, try to fire off 10-12 bicep curls," Coopersmith suggests. "Pause. Recover and do it three times, and get some strength training."
You can even sneak in some strength training at work, says Carpenter. "You can do push-ups against the photocopy machine while you are waiting for your documents, or wear a headset instead of holding the phone so you can use dumbbells while at your desk," she says.
And don't forget your flexibility exercises, says Carpenter: "You can do neck rolls, shoulder rolls, and stretch your quadriceps or hamstrings while standing at your desk."
Do You Need a More Formal Exercise Plan?
Even with an active lifestyle, you may need to supplement your everyday activity with a gym membership or another more formal exercise plan, depending on your goals, Stuhr says.
"There are a variety of health benefits that come out of being more physically active," Stuhr says. "But it you need to lose a significant amount of weight, improve your stamina, or achieve a higher degree of cardiovascular protection then you may need higher intensity exercise."
"The best of both worlds is to have a structured exercise program supplemented by active lifestyle," says Carpenter.