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Why Everyday Activities Count as Exercise

Running around town instead of at the gym? Find out if those day-to-day activities are secret calorie burners and how to make them really count.
Why Everyday Activities Count as Exercise
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Burn, baby, burn—calories that is. We all burn fuel during our daily routine, and there’s even a catchy name for it: non-exercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT) [1]. It’s the energy we use for everything from walking up stairs to texting, and with a little imagination, it’s easy to turn mundane activities into calorie burning opportunities—no gym required.

The best part is that, according to new research, these activities can help with weight management and actually count toward recommended exercise guidelines. (The Center for Disease Control suggests two-and-a-half hours of aerobic activity every week, along with muscle strengthening activities on two or more of those days.)

We might not work up a sweat while shopping or doing housework, but every minute when we’re not lounging on the couch is another step toward good health [2] [3]. Read on to see how to make these everyday activities count even more.

Everyday I’m Hustlin'—Your Action Plan

For a long time, researchers thought that, in order for exercise to count toward physical activity guidelines, we had to be active for at least 10 minutes at a time. But results from a new study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion are causing some scientists to rethink those beliefs [4]. Researchers looked at physical activity in adults between the ages of 18 and 64 and found that both long and short bouts of higher-intensity exercise were associated with lower BMI and risk of overweight and obesity. ("Long bouts" means at least 10 minutes of physical activity; "short bouts" refers to less than 10 minutes of physical activity. Intensity was measured by accelerometer counts per minute.)

These findings should encourage us to take advantage of all the opportunities to get active, from the classroom to the laundry room. By turning off the autopilot and tackling everyday tasks with a little more speed, energy, and intensity, the usual to-dos can get a sneaky calorie-burning boost. Here’s how:

  • Shop around. Whether it’s shopping for groceries or a new pair of shoes, shopping means walking, and walking burns calories (we’re talking 120 to 150 per half hour) [5]. Ready to boost the burn? Park as far away from the store’s entrance as possible to add some distance to the walk, and just say no to elevators and escalators. Bonus: Taking the stairs can burn more calories per minute than jogging. Try two at a time to really get things moving.
  • Clean house. Vacuuming, sweeping, or Swiffering is good for 150 calories per hour. So throw on the tunes, add in some moves like Jagger, and blast away those dust bunnies and a few extra cals. Next, move that mountain of laundry by holding the basket in front of the body and twisting the torso side to side for a quick oblique workout. Extra credit: tuck jumps during the spin cycle.
  • Shake and bake. Thirty minutes of chopping veggies or washing pots and pans may only burn around 75 calories, but add in some gluteus maximus isometrics (read: squeezing the butt), and the backside gets a workout, too. And don’t forget to ditch the electric mixer. Stirring the batter by hand will give the arm muscles some extra love.
  • Stop hop. Getting off the bus or train one stop early is an easy way to go the extra mile (and did we mention walking can burn around 120 calories per half hour?). Extra credit: Walk along the curb to improve balance and work the core (safety first, though!).
  • Wax on, wax off. Washing the car can burn 135 calories in 30 minutes. Add in a few sets of calf raises to reach the roof of the car, along with a few sets of squats to wash the tires and the legs get a workout, too. Bonus: saving some cash by skipping the car wash.
  • Throw the snow. Don’t let bad weather get in the way of a workout—aerobic exercise is just a shovel away [7]! Shoveling snow for 30 minutes can burn over 180 calories. Ready for more? Put on the headphones with some upbeat music to really pick up the pace.
  • Order up. No need to wait for the cocktail waitress. Walk over to the bar and order those drinks on your own. Extra credit: While waiting for the bartender, stand on one foot. Not only will it work the core with some basic balancing, it might just be a handy way to measure tipsiness, too!

Of course, these are by no means the only ways to get moving day-to-day. Having an open mind (and a willing body!) is key to keeping active every day.

The Takeaway

While traditional aerobic activity and strength training are key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, everyday activities can be an additional way to get us moving—especially with a few calorie-blasting tricks.

This article originally published March 2012. Updated September 2013.

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Works Cited +

  1. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Levine, J.A. Endocrine Research Unit, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, USA. Best Practices and Research. Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2002 Dec;16(4):679-702.
  2. Moderate to vigorous physical activity and weight outcomes: does every minute count? Fan, J.X., Brown, B.B., Hanson, H., et al. American Journal of Health Promotion 2013 Sept-Oct;28(1):41-9.
  3. Potential contribution of leisure activity to the energy expenditure patterns of sedentary populations Livingstone, M.B., Strain, J.J., Prentice, A.M., et al. Biomedical Sciences Research Centre, University of Ulster, Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland. British Journal of Nutrition, 1991 Mar;65(2):145-55.
  4. Moderate to vigorous physical activity and weight outcomes: does every minute count? Fan, J.X., Brown, B.B., Hanson, H., et al. American Journal of Health Promotion 2013 Sept-Oct;28(1):41-9.
  5. How many steps/day are enough? For adults. Tudor-Locke, C., Craig, C.L., Brown, W.J., et al. Walking Behavior Laboratory, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge, LA, USA. International Journal of Behavioral Nutritional and Physical Activity, 2011 Jul 28;8:79.
  6. Periodic increases in force during sustained contraction reduce fatigue and facilitate spatial redistribution of trapezius muscle activity Falla, D., Farina, D. Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction (SMI), Department of Health Science and Technology, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark. Experimental Brain Research, 2007 Sep;182(1):99-107. Epub 2007 May 23.
  7. Coagulation and fibrinolytic responses to manual versus automated snow removal Womack, C.J., Paton, C.M., Coughlin, A.M., et al. Human Energy Research Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 2003 Oct;35(10):1755-9.

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