Most of us are used to thinking of “exercise” as something to do in a gym, but we’re overlooking common ways to get our hearts and lungs pumping, strengthen our muscles, and stretch everything out in the ordinary activities of everyday life (especially relevant now!).
Ironically, a lot of these opportunities fall under the heading of tasks, often ones we dread or put off doing!
Why should you care? Almost daily, some new study reveals another health benefit of regular exercise. Many experts call it the closest thing to a panacea for warding off or managing both physical and mental illnesses. (Watch: This Is Your Brain on Exercise.)
Reframing how we define exercise
Psychologists call bringing a new perspective “reframing” or “changing the narrative.”
Think of daily chores as workouts! Long before I started reframing many of my daily chores as workouts, I’d learned the essentials of aerobic fitness, strength, and flexibility well enough that I knew how to tailor the work at hand to adapt to my current abilities. See a guide to basic stretches from the Mayo Clinic.
I learned those basics in black-iron weight-training gyms, by observing and asking questions of seasoned athletes, getting injured and rehabbing with physical therapy, training for triathlons, and, of course, reading many books and articles.
The cardinal rules for any exercise
- Start slow. Work up to faster, heavier work gradually, over a period of days or weeks, especially if you’re out of shape.
- Then, keep it up. Your body “detrains” quickly if you don’t require your muscles to move, lift, and stretch at their current capacity on a regular basis.
Mix it up.
- Do 10 to 30 minutes of a job that requires what I call the grunt-work (lifting and hauling, moving heavy stuff around). Lift safely!
- Then switch to some huff-’n’-puff work where you work up a sweat (rake leaves or mow the lawn fast).
- Then finish off with some work that encourages stretching and bending (hanging laundry, weeding a garden).
Or, alternate the days on which you do various kinds of work. Too long, too hard, or too frequent a spell of a single activity may overwork some muscle-tendon systems, resulting in overuse injuries.
What counts as exercise in everyday life?
The answer: pretty much anything. Once you get going, you’ll find exercise in surprising places. For me, in my rural environment, I’d include:
- Shoveling and spreading mulch around the gardens and berry bushes. A little strength work, a little huff-’n’-puff.
- Pruning and hauling brush. Slow aerobics.
- Buying groceries. Brisk 1,000 steps around the store, placing items in my cart as I go.
- Running up and down stairs putting things away. In a three-story house with a basement, up with only a few items at a time, then down for more.
- Splitting and stacking wood. Strength work. Need to have built upper body strength to begin.
- Hanging laundry. Stretching and bending.
- Mowing the lawn. Yes, a gas-fired power mower, but I take it fast, and our lawn has hills.
- Raking leaves (also mopping floors). Put on the headphones and pick up the pace.
- Planting/watering vegetables. Good opportunity for stretching.
- Hoeing vegetables. Big garden lets me work up a sweat.
- Shoveling snow. Grunt-and-groan or work-up-a-sweat work, depending on pace, how deep and heavy the snow is, etc.
- Scrubbing floors and windows, vacuuming or sweeping floors.
Like most households, we already have the equipment and supplies required for the work: rakes, shovels, digging forks, pruning tools, hoes, weeders, wheelbarrows, brooms, mops, dusters, plenty of cleaning rags. Also, a few power tools: a vacuum cleaner and two rototillers.
Reframing your drudgework as exercise won’t win you the hero status you’d get from completing the Hawaii Ironman or hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. But hey, you may come to appreciate those once-dreaded tasks as you build a stronger, faster-moving, more flexible set of muscles while you’re at it.