It’s a typical after-school scene. One kid needs help with unrecognizable math homework, another complains about the latest middle-school mean girl drama, and everyone is hangry. You grab your phone to take a breather on the couch while dinner cooks. Scrolling your news feed, you see another headline about sitting being the new smoking.
Defeated, you wonder how you’re going to fit an exercise routine into your day. Joining a gym, learning complicated equipment, buying overpriced leggings, and sweating it out on the elliptical? You’re overwhelmed before you’ve started! All that fancy stuff is great for Gwyneth P. But if you’re an ordinary mom like me, with no support staff or seven figure income, read on.
What if the type of movement required for mental health, less pain and fatigue, and higher quality of life as we age didn’t have to look like that? What if it was more about sprinkling in short bursts of activity, “exercise snacks“, if you will, throughout your day? (Ummm… who doesn’t love snacks?!) What if those gave us more benefits than the perfect exercise routine we imagine?
Why Should We Add More Movement to Our Day?
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Our habit of prolonged sitting is killing us. In addition to causing pain, our sedentary lifestyles increase our risk of many diseases.
…including obesity and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. Too much sitting also seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.Mayo Clinic: Sitting risks
Worse, exercise does not make up for the lack of movement. (source) This means that if we have a sedentary lifestyle and work out for an hour a day, we’re still going to experience more health problems and troubles in old age than someone who moves more all day. It’s not just our physical health that’s affected. Sitting a lot also causes low mood and anxiety. (source)
That’s the bad news. What’s the good news?
The good news is, getting the movement our bodies crave is more accessible than we thought. For us busy moms who have multiple obligations tugging at us all the time, this is comforting.
Recent studies have concluded that small bits of activity sprinkled throughout the day are protective to our health. And that frequent “exercise snacks” to break up our habits of driving, working at a desk or sitting on the couch are more protective to our health than one long exercise session.
Npr.orgExercise physiologist and Columbia University Medical Center researcher Keith Diaz told Zomorodi that we need to incorporate movement into our days at regular intervals. In fact, in a 2023 study, Diaz’s team pinpointed a gold standard – five minutes of walking every half hour.
Five minutes of walking, every half hour, offset the harms of sitting all day.
The study linked above found that frequent short bursts of activity lowered blood sugar and blood pressure levels. It also “led to significant decreases in fatigue and significant improvements in mood.” I’m sure you need that as much as I do.
This study, and others like it, help us let go of the black and white thinking around health and fitness. What we need as a culture is a paradigm shift. We need to focus on getting more movement throughout the day.
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12 Ways to Sprinkle Movement Throughout Your Day
Trust me when I say that I struggle as much to get off the couch as anyone. Content to sit and read for hours, I’m not naturally a mover. I have to force myself to move around. But when I do, I find that I feel so much better.
So, I’ve learned to incorporate small, doable habits into my routine.
1) Take frequent breaks from your computer to walk around
Some people are moving to standing desks, and those might be an improvement if you wiggle, shift, bend around a lot. But ideally, it’s best to take more breaks to walk around. Some people swear by the Pomodoro technique, where they set a timer for 25 minutes to work, then take a 5 minute break. Instead of using that time to check social media or play a game on your phone, it would be far better for our health (and productivity) to take a short walk instead.
2) Park farther away from the store and ALWAYS take the stairs
If you’re an American living in the suburbs like me, you drive to do your shopping. Make it a habit to park farther away from the store to get some more walking in.
Always taking the stairs is a no-brainer. If I enter a building with a friend, I joke that “I’m allergic to elevators“. Climbing stairs gives us a nice backside ladies!
I also never take the train or use the moving sidewalk when I’m at the airport. Since I know I’ll be forced to sit for a few hours for the flight, I use the opportunity to walk beforehand.
3) Go outside every day
Going outside naturally means more activity. When I go outside, I usually end up pulling a few weeds or sweeping the front porch. When I was a parent of young kids, I’d pick up stray shoes and trash, lift kids up onto the trampoline, push babies on the swings, or chase toddlers away from the road. Once you’re outside, it’s so easy to go for a short walk.
4) Walk (and talk) with your people
Instead of meeting a friend for lunch or coffee, meet for a walk. Hold walking business meetings. You’ll think better and come up with more ideas.
If you’re a single mom like me and dating, walks are perfect for first dates, since they’re casual and free. Instead of dinner and a movie (things that make you gain weight and spend money!), why not go for a bike ride or hike somewhere lovely with your partner?
I especially enjoy going on walks with my older kids. I find that teenagers and young adults are more likely to open up and talk this way.
5) Sit on the floor
Instead of the couch, sit on the floor. You can play with the kids, do crafts or puzzles, fold laundry, watch TV. The thing about sitting on the floor is that you don’t just sit. You stretch, wiggle around, move from side to side. Sitting on the floor lengthens your hamstrings and opens up your hips. These are chronically tight in our car and chair-centric culture.
Some doctors are requiring their older patients to demonstrate their ability to get down on the floor and get back up. This “exercise” could save your life. Just think: every time you get up from the floor, you’re “weight lifting” because you’re literally hoisting your own body weight off the floor.
If you have trouble sitting on the floor, try putting a pillow under your butt. Make sure you aren’t tucking your pelvis under, but rather stick your booty out a little. The point is to lengthen your tight hamstrings. Children do this naturally and easily, and the reason we can’t is because we stopped moving.
6) Move while you watch TV
Sitting too much causes tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings and deactivates our butt muscles. This can result in all sorts of pain and problems, including pelvic floor issues that are already a concern for people who have had pregnancies.
Challenge yourself to do a stretch or two while you watch TV. Sometimes when I’m watching TV, I do bicep curls and tricep kickbacks. I keep a small hand weight on my coffee table for this purpose.
7) Build tiny movement habits into your day.
Stanford behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits (one of my favorite books on habit change!) launched his exercise routine by doing just two push-ups every time he went to the bathroom. Laura Vanderkam, my favorite time management expert, does a plank while she heats things up in the microwave. Kendra Adachi of The Lazy Genius Way does a downward dog every morning as soon as she gets out of bed.
Starting small is an effective way to create habit change, especially when the behavior is anchored to something we’re already doing.
- Do a calf stretch while you talk on the phone.
- Stand on one foot while you brush your teeth.
- Do 20 jumping jacks while your tea steeps.
- Do counter push-ups while the pasta water boils
- While waiting in the car rider line, Kegel or do tummy exercises
- Blast Spotify for a 5 minute after-school dance party with the kids
What “exercise snacks” can you anchor to another activity you often do?
8) Play at the playground and find a park with exercise equipment
Instead of sitting on a bench watching the kids play, play yourself! Hang from the monkey bars, climb up the rock wall, or at the very least walk around.
We’ve found several parks in our area with exercise equipment. The kids get to play while we adults do a quick workout. Read about “stacking your life” to save time here.
9) Hold your baby (why I threw away my stroller and stopped babywearing)
I don’t have babies that need carrying anymore. But with my fifth child was small, I realized that her stroller was forcing her spine into a C shape and causing her to tuck her pelvis (bad habits for anyone, but especially a growing child!). So I stopped using it.
I also stopped using my beloved baby carrier daily, a habit I’d had for many years while raising littles. Using a sling or baby carrier loads the baby’s weight in ONE particular way on your body, which as any babywearing parent can testify, can lead to aches and pains. I’d heard of so many moms giving themselves chronic pain from babywearing through the years. But if you hold baby in your arms, you’re going to move that baby from hip to hip frequently to change the load.
I eventually only used a sling or carrier on sick or extremely fussy days when I must have my hands free, or to help navigate difficult/dangerous situations with baby in tow.
10) Sit up straight – even while driving
Car seats are absolutely awful for posture. They make it nearly impossible for you to sit up straight with your head atop your shoulders, instead forcing you to jut your head forward into that unattractive and unhealthy “text next” posture.
To compensate, allow a few inches between your back and the seat, and put something there to keep you from sinking into the bucket-shaped seat. Standing or sitting up straight is a passive way of working your abs. Their job is to keep you upright, and if you’re always slumped over, they’re not activating.
11) Think like une fille francaise (a French girl!)
U.S. culture focuses too much on “exercise” to the exclusion of natural movement. One of the things I’ve noticed when I read about French women is that they generally do not do le sport (exercise).
It’s not pleasurable, and who wants to run around sweating? C’est tres Americainne. French girls stay svelte and live longer than their American sisters in part because they move more as a natural part of daily life.
French girls take the stairs. There aren’t a lot of elevators in France and many people live in places where they must climb several flights of stairs to get to their apartment multiple times a day. You are now allergic to elevators!
French girls bike or walk their errands. It’s quite common to see an elderly French woman biking or walking into the village for shopping. (When was the last time you saw an elderly American woman doing this?)
If there is a destination close enough for you to walk or bike to, do it! You’ll have more energy all day, save money on gas, help the environment, and enjoy the beauty of the natural world all around you. Bike or walk with a loved one and it’s even better.
12) Choose more active, less passive entertainment.
I want to see the latest blockbuster at the theater as much as the next girl. And I’m no stranger to a good Netflix binge. But for the most part, I choose entertainment that features activity. Our environment is a powerful factor in developing the habits we want.
13) Use a treadmill or stationary bike while doing computer work
I’m walking on a treadmill at .5 miles an hour while typing this post. I frequently write while using my stationary bike as well. Because my work as a writer is sedentary, I invested in these two pieces of equipment so I could work and move at the same time. I got both used, for pennies on the dollar, on Facebook Marketplace. Pro tip: don’t throw your back out while lifting the treadmill!
It’s amazing to me how much time I can clock without realizing it, because my mind is occupied with writing. I can easily get 45 minutes or more of walking in and barely notice.
Final thought: Housework and childcare activities totally count for our movement needs. But we might need to remind ourselves of it! In one study:
Simply by telling 44 hotel maids that what they did each day involved some serious exercise, the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and Alia J. Crum, a student, were apparently able to lower the women’s blood pressure, shave pounds off their bodies and improve their body-fat and “waist to hip” ratios.New York Times
For what I’ve learned on this topic, I owe a debt of gratitude to Katy Bowman. She’s a biomechanical scientist obsessed with movement and getting us to do a lot more of it. I reviewed one of her books here: Alignment Matters. Katy (you can hear me interview her here) teaches ways to incorporate more movement all day long. Every little bit counts.
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