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9 Ways to Strength Train Outside the Gym

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This post is presented in partnership with Warrior Dash, the World's Largest Running Series, a 5k obstacle course race held on the world's toughest terrain. Train, run, climb, crawl, and celebrate with free beer and live music and entertainment! Sign up for a Warrior Dash near you today.

We know staying active throughout the day is a key part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle — studies show everyday physical activity can give cardiovascular fitness a real boost and even cut down on belly fat [1]. According to some studies, women and older adults are especially likely to skimp on strength training, which can lead to osteoporosis and overall frailness with age [2] [3] So, what’s the best way for a gym hater to stay strong for life? Turn a regular weekly routine into a private gun show by incorporating some of these strength-based activities

1. Chopping wood. Paul Bunyan had huge guns — and you can get them, too. Go back to basics by splitting and hauling some firewood á la Little House on the Prairie. It’s a killer workout — why else have fitness programs adapted the “woodchop” motion for weight training? Swinging a heavy axe (carefully, please) works the arms, back, and core as well as gets the heart pumping. A 60-minute lumberjack sesh can burn up to 500 calories and build some serious muscle. As with using any sharp tool, be sure to use proper technique and safety equipment.

2. Helping a friend move. Schlepping boxes, hoisting furniture, and running up and down steps all day sounds like a nightmare. Or, maybe it’s just an unconventional way to get fit. Boost cardio endurance and earn some brownie points by helping a buddy move in to their new place. Walking up the stairs from the moving truck to the living room of a 5th floor walk-up fires up the glutes, hammies, and quads. Add a 20-pound box of glass tchotchkes, and it might just burn as many calories as an hour or two on the Stairmaster. Moving can burn between 400 and 600 an hour, depending on body weight. Before tackling the big move, be sure to stretch out quads, hamstrings, calves, biceps, and shoulders to avoid pulling a muscle.

3. Carrying laundry. Laundry day is ugly for plenty of reasons (hello, back of the drawer mom jeans), so why not get sweaty? Hauling a few pounds of stinky clothes up and down multiple flights of stairs can burn up to 500 calories per hour. For those of us not fortunate enough to have a washer and dryer in the house, lugging bags down the street to the laundromat can be quite an undertaking. Use a deadlift motion to bring the basket to the washer for extra oomph. Expect some sore arms, shoulders, and legs after laundry day.

4. Raking leaves. Turn boring yardwork from a mind-numbing chore into a physical (and mental) workout. More of a city slicker than a country mouse? Earn a dose of good karma with your exercise and pitch in to clean up a local park. This workout isn’t just for young whippersnappers — a recent study shows that aerobic activity in mid- or late-life can reduce the risk for dementia. Making the grass look clean n’ tidy works the entire upper body — trapezius, biceps, rhomboids, lats, and forearms. Bending down to pick up piles works the backside, too. Just be sure to bend from the knees to avoid a back injury, and keep an eye out for wet leaves and sneaky hiding branches.

5. Taking out the trash. Definitely not the most glamorous home chore, but certainly a necessary one. Separating recyclables doesn’t just help the planet, it’s good for you, too! Sorting bottles and newspaper for recycling and lifting bins every week can be a legit arm workout. Just be sure to use proper technique to avoid injury, because a sore back would stink way more than a week’s worth of trash.

6. Pushing kids on the swings. Stuck babysitting on the perfect afternoon for a run in the park? No worries, keeping up with kids at the park can be a workout in and of itself! Take it to the next level by working on upper body and core strength at the swing set. Pushing a little one on the swing works the arms, back, core, and glutes (which provide balance and support). Work both sides of the body by pushing two kids side-by-side, or trading off pushing arms. 

7. Shoveling snow. Don’t even think about busting out the snow blower! Clearing the driveway with a good old-fashioned shovel gets the blood moving even during the dead of winter. Shoveling snow for 30 minutes burns about 200 calories, and heavy drifts mean putting your back (and arms, legs, and core) into it. Sedentary folks, take note: Shoveling snow isn’t for the faint of heart. Those ill-prepared for vigorous physical activity can suffer health problems, including sprained muscles, a thrown-out back, and even a heart attack [4]. Take the snow removal slowly, use an ergonomic shovel, and pause for frequent breaks to prevent overstrain or injury.

8. Rearranging furniture. Roll up those sleeves and get ready to finally tackle the dust bunnies behind the couch. It should come as no surprise that moving around heavy furniture — think bookshelf, sofa, table and chairs, bed, etc. — is a serious full-body strength workout, burning up to 400 calories per hour. For extra mind-body benefits, try rearranging the furniture according to feng shui principles.

9. Mowing the lawn. Be eco-friendly and waistline-friendly by taking care of the lawn with a non-motorized mower. If a patch of sidewalk is the only “yard” in sight, volunteer to help clean up a local park. Pushing an old school machine across the yard can burn as many calories per hour as running! This strength workout specifically targets the calves and glutes, which provide most of the “oomph” for the motor-less mower. Mowing the old-fashioned way can also provide mental benefits — the repetitive back-and-forth motion can be soothing in a meditative way. Studies show that sniffing freshly cut grass, everyone’s favorite springtime smell, can actually reduce stress.

The bottom line? The key to keeping those muscles in fighting form is to use them as often as possible. Think outside the box just a little bit and take the strength workout out of the gym and into real life.

Do you work up a sweat with everyday activities? What’s your favorite sneaky-workout chore? Share in the comments below or tweet the author at @SophBreene.

This post was presented in partnership with Warrior Dash, the World's Largest Running Series, a 5k obstacle course race held on the world's toughest terrain. Train, run, climb, crawl, and celebrate with free beer and live music and entertainment! Sign up for a Warrior Dash near you today.

After spending eight years as a high school and college athlete, I'm learning how to maintain a healthy lifestyle on my own (aka without a coach... Read More »

Works Cited

  1. Incidental physical activity is positively associated with cardiorespiratory fitness. McGuire KA, Ross R. School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Nov;43(11):2189-94.
  2. Potential health-related benefits of resistance training. Winett RA, Carpinelli RN. Center for Research in Health Behavior, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA. Prev Med. 2001 Nov;33(5):503-13.
  3. The benefits of strength training for older adults. Seguin R, Nelson ME. Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition, The Gerald J and Dorothy R Friendman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Boston, Mssachusetts, USA. Am J Prev Med. 2003 Oct;25(3 Suppl 2):141-9.
  4. Cardiac demands of heavy snow shoveling. Franklin BA, Hogan P, Bonzheim K, Bakalyar D, Terrien E, Gordon S, Timmis GC. Department of Medicine, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, MI. JAMA. 1995 Mar 15;273(11)880-2.