The power of nano workouts — or how to stay fit without exercising

A lot of people ask me whether or how often I work out to maintain the great shape I’m in. I just smile, thank them for their kind words, and decline to divulge my secret. But now I’m ready to share it with you.

Most of us are too busy for exercise, or we de-prioritize it because eating chips while watching Game of Thrones is more fun. After all, ‘workout’ contains the word ‘work.’ And we do enough of that at the office. So the key to staying fit without much effort is to squeeze a little exercise into the nooks and crannies of your busy life instead of scheduling time at the gym, only to postpone it as soon as something more desirable comes up. And just about everything is more desirable than working out! I call these activities ‘nano workouts’, or ‘exercise snacks’ because they are small and easily digestible.

Let me give you some examples by sharing my typical day’s routine. When I wake up but don’t quite yet want to get out of bed because it’s too darn cozy, I do a few stretches while staying in bed. There: two birds with one stone. Stay in bed a bit longer AND do something healthy.

While I brush my teeth I do squats — about 60 during the two minutes that my electric toothbrush drones on in my mouth. BANG! Multi-tasking like a millennial!

By now my dog has woken up as well and wants some attention. So I get on the floor and let her cozy up to me as I do a few pushups, followed by some hamstring stretches accompanied by belly scratches (hers, not mine). Now I’ve done something for my emotional well-being AND my physical well-being, and still feel like I haven’t lost a step of my morning routine.

For a quick core workout, I tie my shoes while standing up (i.e. balancing on one leg while raising the other in front of me until I can reach the laces). Later, on my way to work I get off the Metro one station earlier than needed, so my walk to work is 15 minutes instead of 5.

At work I use a standing desk. Standing itself doesn’t burn a whole lot of calories, but since I’m already standing, I am more likely to walk over to a co-worker’s desk instead of just emailing or slacking them. And those extra steps do add up.

If I need to go to a different floor for a meeting I choose the stairs over the elevator. And if there is a choice between stairs and an escalator, I always take the stairs. I tend to arrive at the top at the same time as the escalator-standees, so I still haven’t lost any time to exercise.

When I get home I usually take the dog for a walk, which is relaxing for the body and the mind (but only if you leave your cellphone behind), but not much exercise for me. So I grab a 15-lb rock and bring it along to do curls and shoulder exercises while holding the leash with the other hand. Now my upper body is also getting exercise AND I’m being left alone by other dog walkers. Swish!

Back inside at home I have a rule: never watch TV from the couch. By sitting on the floor while watching TV I’m more likely to stretch, which often leads to leg lifts and finally sit-ups. I use what’s happening on screen as motivational primers, for example: “I’ll do sit-ups for the entirety of this commercial break” or “I’m going to hold this stretch until LeBron scores again.” Football games are great for push-ups: each time a team scores, I do as many push-ups as there are combined points on the scoreboard (bonus: this will make low-scoring games more palatable).

So much for my daily routine. Here are five other nano-workouts that can be executed without missing a beat:

  1. When you travel, carry your suitcase rather than wheel it behind you. Alternate hands when one gets tired. For motivation tell yourself that you are too young to be pulling your luggage through airports on wheels, just like you’re too young to let a golf cart take you to the gate.
  2. When driving on long highways and you get antsy, straighten your arms, place your hands at opposite sides of the steering wheel and squeeze towards the center, giving your deltoids a good workout. Hold until you pass whatever was on the horizon when you started.
  3. When you descend an escalator (I know -- why aren’t you taking the stairs?!), place both hands on the railing and push yourself slightly off the step you were standing on. Hold that pose until you reach the bottom and remember to smile so people don’t realize you are straining to hold a pose.
  4. When doing grocery shopping, take a basket instead of a cart. Do curls while the basket is still empty enough to allow you to perform them without straining and looking like an idiot.
  5. While waiting anywhere (bus stop, traffic light, grocery store), subtly raise one foot off the floor and balance on the other. It’s a great way to strengthen your ankles and practice your balance (which diminishes as you age): another 2-for-1 exercise that takes up no additional time!

Now go forth and exercise without really working out and enjoy answering those questions about your mysteriously high level of fitness. It’s fun!