Chris Whitty’s stairs and the doctrine of incidental exercise

·6-min read
You could sneak in a few press-ups while waiting for dinner to cook - Getty
You could sneak in a few press-ups while waiting for dinner to cook - Getty

When you think of exercise, you might picture a sweaty gym session, a gruelling bout of cold water swimming, or an uphill bike ride that leaves you red-faced and panting. If you’re one of the fitness fiends that manages to uphold a structured exercise routine, even during these cold winter days, you should feel deservedly smug.

Yet not all of us can boast of such impressive commitment: how many of us would sheepishly admit that any ambitious exercise plan, perhaps inspired by Boris Johnson’s fitness drive earlier this year, has long been shelved?

But fear not: as Professor Chris Whitty reminded us this week, exercise need not always involve Lycra, sweat and lengthy time commitments. Even if you’re yet to have left your house today, you have probably already exercised – simply by engaging in basic daily activities.

Speaking at Monday’s CBI conference, the Government’s chief medical adviser pointed out that exercise can be easily incorporated into our daily routines – and that businesses can help employees stay active by simply encouraging them to take the stairs rather than the lift or turning off the escalator. “It sounds trivial – but day in, day out, over an entire work lifetime, it can be absolutely the difference between someone entering older age healthy or not healthy,” he said.

These so-called “trivial” exercises are examples of incidental exercise, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), the practice of expending energy through physical activities other than sleeping, sports or eating. Incidental exercise can be incorporated at work or at home. By regularly maximising the incidental exercises in your daily routine, you can reap significant health benefits.

More companies are now providing standing desks so you can add more movement to your day - Digital Vision
More companies are now providing standing desks so you can add more movement to your day - Digital Vision

Research released this week has shown that even housework can be good for your health: a study led by the University of Singapore found that older adults who regularly performed household chores have a higher cognitive function (and for those over 65, superior leg strength) than those who did not. The researchers analysed data on nearly 500 people aged between 21 and 90, and found that those who regularly completed “heavy” housework like window cleaning, vacuuming and scrubbing the floor had better balance and co-ordination than those who did not.

So, if even laundry can be classed as exercise, how else should we be incorporating incidental exercise into our daily lives? Fitness coach Sara Clarke, founder of Fitting in Fitness, encourages her clients to adapt daily habits that they already have, and incorporate movement wherever they can: “Just moving your body is exercise,” she says.

Personal trainer Beth Davies agrees, and she points out that even simple movements are still a form of exercise. “If we re-frame the way we view exercise more as movement rather than 20 minutes in the gym, we’re probably going to be open to doing a bit more.”

At home, opportunities for incidental exercise are everywhere. Incidental exercises can be incorporated from the moment you wake up, Clarke points out. “Just waiting for the kettle to boil, can you do any press-ups against your kitchen counter? When you take the kids to school, can you run home instead of walk?”

Rather than keeping your alarm clock by your bed, try placing it on the other side of your room, in order to maximise your movement. If you’re carrying a load of laundry up and down the stairs, try splitting it into smaller loads and doing separate trips, so as to increase your step count. If you’re able to, try walking to the shops and buying groceries in person, rather than getting them delivered. Gardening is a great way to maximise your incidental exercise, too – try planting your vegetables rather than buying them, and water them each day.

You can even incorporate exercise while watching TV, perhaps through lunges or squats during ad breaks or doing a workout on your exercise bike.

The chief medical adviser suggests small everyday changes to add ‘non-exercise’ activity to our lives - Getty
The chief medical adviser suggests small everyday changes to add ‘non-exercise’ activity to our lives - Getty

Incidental exercise is also easy to incorporate during your working day. With many of us returning to the office, Davies says that there are many things that we can do to keep fit – and not only by ditching the lift. Davies encourages employers to use walking meetings – meetings held over a stroll rather than in a boardroom – in order to increase our step count.

Rethinking our route to work is key, too, she says. “I appreciate that not everyone can walk or cycle to work, but actually just getting off a little bit earlier and having more of a walk either side” can be an easy way to incorporate extra exercise.

Davies suggests taking regular movement breaks, walking around the office or getting fresh air. In spare moments when we would otherwise reach for our phones, such as waiting for the microwave to ping, she suggests incorporating other movements instead – squats, lunges, stretches, anything that engages our muscles.

For those of us who don’t mind risking being the office joke, she suggests doing lunges en route to a meeting room, doing squats at your desk, or regularly timing yourself doing laps of the building and trying to beat your previous times.

Personal trainer Sarah Scudamore, founder of Mumology Movement, agrees that bouts of incidental exercise, although tame in comparison with an intense cardio workout, add up. “The benefit of incidental exercise is that it can be done really consistently in a really short amount of time, and every little bit that we do throughout the day really adds up,” she says.

Scudamore says that what we wear to work can encourage more movement. “If you’re wearing more activewear – even if you’re wearing trainers to work and then changing your footwear when you get [there], or wearing clothes that are a little more comfortable to move in,” she says you’re more likely to up your movement credit throughout the day.

As she notes, we’re much more likely to incorporate incidental exercise when we go into the office. “I’ve got a lot of clients and friends who, during the pandemic, had to work from home and their steps dramatically reduced – they were only doing a few hundred steps during their work day.” If you are going into the office, she suggests taking a longer route to get there and walking as much of it as possible.

As Whitty says, such movements might seem trivial, but over an extended period they can make a difference. You can even start now – even if it’s by doing a squat as you reach for the TV remote.

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