Ever since much of our work and school activities have moved online, I’ve struggled to stay active. Even as much of life has returned to “normal,” some of the sedentary habits I’ve picked up over the past year and a half or so have persisted.
Recognizing this, I’ve been working to bring regular physical activity back into my life.
I’ve done the predictable things, such as going back to the gym and setting some fitness goals. But beyond that, I’ve been looking for less obvious ways to make my overall lifestyle more active.
What I’ve discovered is that there are lots of subtle, simple ways to add more activity to each day. And none of them require spending hours at the gym or doing boring, arbitrary exercises.
Below, I share some of the ways I’ve discovered to fill each day with more physical activity. If you’re struggling to be active as a student or working professional, then these tips will help you out.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. I am not a doctor, personal trainer, or health coach. Always consult a healthcare professional for specific advice on weight loss, fitness, and health.
If you’re reading this article, then I don’t need to explain the many benefits of regular physical activity. Along with a healthy diet, regular physical activity is essential for living a long and high-quality life.
Still, I think it’s worth considering what “being active” really means. Often, we equate “physical activity” with “exercise” or “working out”. While that can certainly be the case, not every form of physical activity has to involve intense exertion or endurance.
In fact, I’d argue that it’s overall better to live an active lifestyle, in a holistic sense, than to spend 30-60 minutes at the gym a few times per week. It’s a shift in mindset, in which activity isn’t siloed into special places or times but instead infuses all parts of your life.
After all, in many parts of the world, activity is simply a normal part of life. Whether it’s walking to get groceries or biking to an appointment, movement tends to have a purpose beyond just “working out.” America is the peculiar country with its focus on “getting in shape” and “sweating it out” in the gym.
This mindset of useful activity, of movement with a purpose, underlies all of my suggestions in the next section. If you can shift your mindset from “getting exercise” to doing things that require physical exertion, then “staying active” becomes much easier, a side effect of daily activities.
Now that you’ve resolved to be more active in daily life (not just in the gym), we can look at some ways to be more active. Some of these will probably be familiar, even obvious, but I bet there are a few you haven’t considered.
Take the stairs
When I moved to Denver, CO, in 2019, I was concerned about how I’d acclimate to the high elevation. Luckily, Thomas gave me a great tip: take the stairs. Since I was living on the 10th floor of an apartment building at the time, I had no shortage of opportunities to do just that. And within just a few days, I found myself almost fully acclimated to the elevation.
Even if you don’t need to adjust to a higher elevation, taking the stairs is a great way to stay active while also getting where you need to go. You don’t have to live on a high floor, either. In some part of your daily life, there’s likely a chance to take the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator.
Shift your mindset from, “Oh dang, I have to take the stairs” to “I get to take the stairs, it’s a pleasure.”
Park farther away
I can’t think of many things more American than driving around a parking lot trying to find a space close to the entrance. While there are certainly cases where parking close to a building entrance is useful or even necessary, you rarely need to park as close as possible.
Instead of driving in circles to find the closest spot, pick a spot farther away. Not only will this save you time and fuel, but it will give you a chance to add a couple of short walks to your errands. If you have to drive a car, you might as well try to work in some activity where you can.
Use a standing desk (for work and recreation)
Using a standing desk is one of those subtle lifestyle changes that can make a lot of difference.
While you don’t burn significantly more calories standing than sitting, the dangers of prolonged sitting are well-known. In contrast, a standing desk can provide a much more active way of working. You have to constantly shift your weight, stretch, and adjust your position to stay comfortable.
Plus, I find that when I’m already standing up, I’m much more likely to stretch or take a short walk between work sessions. The amount of activity isn’t dramatic or strenuous, but it can add up over an entire workday (and is certainly better than 8+ hours of sitting).
Furthermore, you don’t have to confine your standing desk to work activities. You can also use it while playing video games, watching TV, reading articles like this one, or doing any other kind of digital leisure activity. This can take some getting used to, but after a while, you’ll wonder how you ever spent so much time sitting.
To find a standing desk that fits your budget and needs, check out this guide.
Take public transit
If, like many Americans, you live in a place where public transit is basically nonexistent, then feel free to skip this section.
However, if you happen to live somewhere with a solid public transit network, then I encourage you to use it. While riding transit is less active than walking or biking, it’s still way more active than driving.
To start, you likely have to walk (or, sometimes, sprint) to the transit stop. And once you’re on the bus or train, you have to watch out for your stop and get off without delay. You may even have to stand if there isn’t a lot of room.
Not only is this a more active way to travel, but it will also help you be more engaged with your city and the people who live there (as opposed to speeding by in a car, which isolates you from much of daily life).
Note that this section is not titled, “Take walks.” While I love aimless walking for thinking and leisure, you can also use walking to accomplish errands.
Certainly, this won’t be possible if you live somewhere that’s hostile to pedestrians and far from shops, restaurants, etc. But if you do live somewhere walkable, then give it a shot!
Note that this may require you to change your definition of “walkable”. I know some people, for instance, who consider a walk longer than ten minutes to be excessive. But in general, if you can walk there in less than 20 or 30 minutes, it’s not really that “far.”
When you use walks to run errands or go to events, then you’re getting a double whammy. You get where you need to go, and you get some light to moderate exercise in the process (depending on your walking pace).
If walking places has gotten you excited about more active forms of transportation, then biking will take things to a whole new level. Destinations that are unrealistically far on foot are within easy reach on a bike. Plus, you can attach panniers or frame bags to the bike, dramatically increasing the number of things you can carry compared to walking.
Not to mention, biking is an extremely efficient mode of transportation. As Jeff Speck explains in Walkable City, “Using the same amount of energy as walking, a bicycle will take you three times farther.” And unlike with a car, you don’t have to pay extra for the fuel — you’ve already consumed it.
As with walking places, using your bike for transportation lets you get around while staying fit. Some of the specific health benefits include reduced stress, improved core strength, and improved weight management (to name just a few).
Plus, did I mention how much fun biking is?
If I could sum up this article in one sentence, it would be this: “To be more active in your daily life, stop prioritizing convenience.”
Living in other countries, I noticed that one of the defining features of American society is convenience. We have stores where we can buy everything from toys to toilet paper, transportation networks designed for fast automobile travel, and escalators to save us the strain of walking.
While convenience isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I sure missed one-stop shopping when I lived abroad), a convenient life is rarely the healthiest. To be more active in daily life, you have to embrace a certain amount of discomfort and inconvenience.
At least, it may feel that way at first. But once you realize that a more active life can also be more engaging, vital, and even fun, your obsession with convenience will begin to fade.
Image Credits: Chicago cyclists