Exercise is a key contributor to health and happiness: Beyond triggering that runner's high, it's associated with a higher quality of life, improved health, and a better mood. Exercise activates the endocannabinoid system. Sparling PB, Giuffrida A, Piomelli D. Neuroreport, 2004, May.;14(17):0959-4965. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Penedo FJ, Dahn JR. Current opinion in psychiatry, 2006, May.;18(2):0951-7367. But even if your day is "crazy busy," there are still ways to get sneak some cardio into your routine.
Moving more every day means less time sitting, which can lower the risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and early death. Too much sitting--a health hazard. Dunstan DW, Howard B, Healy GN. Diabetes research and clinical practice, 2012, Jun.;97(3):1872-8227. And while intense exercise is good for us, one hour per day doesn’t completely erase the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Translation: Moving throughout the day can have long-term benefits. Sedentary behavior, physical activity, and the metabolic syndrome among U.S. adults. Ford ES, Kohl HW, Mokdad AH. Obesity research, 2005, Aug.;13(3):1071-7323.
So how much cardio is enough, and what are some ways to fit it in? Experts recommend 150 minutes per week (or 30 minutes five days per week) of moderate aerobic exercise, plus two to three days per week of strength training. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2011, Oct.;43(7):1530-0315.
Whether you pick 30 continuous minutes of activity or three 10-minute sessions, here are 12 simple ways to get more active—even on the days you can't make it to the gym. Time spent in physical activity and sedentary behaviors on the working day: the American time use survey. Tudor-Locke C, Leonardi C, Johnson WD, Katzmarzyk PT. J Occup Environ Med., 2011, Dec;53(12):1382-7.
At the Office
1. Be a stair master.
Don't just take the stairs, take them one at a time. Researchers found that while the rate of caloric expenditure was higher when taking them two at a time, the burn over an entire flight was more when taking them one at a time. Participants burned 302 calories per week on single steps versus 266 calories per week using the double-step approach. (And don't worry if you get out of breath, it's totally normal.)
2. Walk and talk.
If the idea of a walking meeting sounds awkward, try asking your coworker if you can chat while strolling around the block or as you walk to get coffee. Think of it this way: Walking for 15 minutes will burn about 66 calories, whereas sitting for the same time burns just 28.* Mobile meetings can also strengthen work relationships, improve health, and boost creativity.
3. Stand up.
Think of your ring tone as an alarm to get up out of the chair. Every time you take a call, stand or walk to another part of the office, if possible. Better yet, create your own standing desk by stacking books or invest in this one (it's only $25!). Even if you work in an old-school office environment where standing would be taboo, make it a point to stand up and take a short walk every hour.
4. Hydrate often.
Getting lots of H2O means more trips to the bathroom (and it might also help to ramp up your metabolism). Water-induced thermogenesis. Boschmann M, Steiniger J, Hille U. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 2004, Jan.;88(12):0021-972X. For bonus points, pick a bathroom on a different floor or the one farthest away from you. (If the idea of guzzling plain old water sounds 'meh', just try one of these make-at-home fruit-infused recipes.)
On the Weekends
5. Hit the dance floor.
Rather than sitting around guzzling sugary concoctions (frozen strawberry daiquiris anyone?), why not grab some friends to shake it on the dance floor instead? Just 30 minutes—or about seven or eight songs—of dancing burns about 150 calories.
6. Have an active date.
If you're part of the dating scene, drinks and dinner not only gets tiresome, but it can quickly add up—both in cash and calories. For your next evening out, why not ask for a workout date? A game of tennis can burn more than 200 calories in 30 minutes, while an hour-long spin class can burn close to 700 calories. Not into either of those ideas? Then try one of our other 30 cheap date ideas.
7. Game night.
So-called "exergames"—think Xbox Fitness or Wii Fit Plus—have been shown to increase energy expenditure up to three times more than just sitting. But keep in mind: While these games are better than just sitting on the couch, energy burn can vary quite a bit depending on the game. In other words, 30 minutes of Wii Yoga is not an excuse for a food free-for-all.
On the Go
8. No more lazy layovers.
Stuck in the airport because of a delayed flight? Don’t just sit there. Try walking your terminal instead. One exercise physiologist suggests packing a pair of sneakers in your carry-on (or just wearing them to the airport), so you can stroll your terminal until it's time to board your flight.
9. Ditch the drive.
If you're close, bike or walk to work instead. Commuting via public transportation or driving not only adds stress, but that extra sitting time—about 25 minutes on average—can also lead to weight gain. Commuting by car: weight gain among physically active adults. Sugiyama T, Ding D, Owen N. American journal of preventive medicine, 2013, Jun.;44(2):1873-2607. Get more healthy commuting ideas here.
Around the House
10. Clean machine.
11. Park far away.
While running errands, park in a spot far from the entrance, so you get a little extra mileage on your way into the store.
12. Take a lap (or three!).
Browsing the perimeter of a grocery store can do more than just promote healthy food choices. Take a couple of laps to rack up even more steps. And we probably don't have to tell you to carry your groceries, but just in case you need extra motivation: Carrying light groceries for only 5 minutes will burn about 44 calories.
Exercise doesn’t have to be done at the gym, on a track, or even in workout clothes. Small amounts of exercise throughout the day definitely can add up. Pair some of these sneaky cardio boosters with unexpected strength training ideas to vary your routine daily.
(*Note: Caloric expenditure varies depending on age, weight, gender, athleticism, and height. Your actual expenditure may be higher or lower than what we've calculated. For all of the above calculations, we assumed a 25-year-old woman who is 5'5" and 140 pounds. You can figure out your own burn using the formula here.)
Originally published November 2013. Updated April 2016.