Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
New research shows the health benefits of short bursts of incidental physical activity. Here’s how to sneak in some exercise into the normal course of your day.
The next time you run for the bus only to watch it pull away, don’t despair. Take a moment to catch your breath and look on the bright side: At least you snuck in a quick HIIT workout.
HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training—basically short bursts of intense exercise with periods of recovery nestled in between. Science suggests it’s one of the best forms of exercise that can be done in a short amount of time. But even the briefest formal workouts face the same huge hurdle: It’s just so easy to say, “Maybe tomorrow.”
That’s why a new report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine brings some welcome news: Just moving about in the city, or even within your own home, offers a chance to squeeze in meaningful exercise.
Researchers call it “incidental physical activity,” and the best part is that it isn’t really “working out” as you might normally think of it. As the name indicates, it’s all subtly incorporated into your daily routine, whether it’s commuting, grocery shopping, or doing household chores.
With obesity and more sedentary lifestyles increasing across the globe, health officials are changing the narrative around exercise. Mounting scientific evidence contradicts the long-held belief that workouts must last 20 to 30 minutes to be effective; shorter bursts of more intense activity have been shown to have meaningful benefits on their own. A 2012 observational study of more than 5,000 cyclists in Copenhagen, for example, found that more intense bike rides have a stronger link to lower disease-related mortality rates than longer bike rides do.
The U.S. federal government, meanwhile, updated its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans in 2018 for the first time in 10 years to eliminate the requirement that physical activity has to last at least 10 minutes to be effective. Health officials now say any length of moderate to vigorous activity is beneficial. The aim, then, is to get people moving more, especially people who are older, less active, and less fit.
This can include several minutes of active commuting—walking, biking, maybe even jogging to work—for example, or it can be “short and sweet.” Just 30 seconds of climbing up the stairs, repeated several times throughout the day, counts, according to the paper. The recommendation is to get three to five of these high-intensity non-workouts in a day, and not necessarily all at once. As the researchers write, the key is to “huff and puff regularly.”
So in a sense, the city can be your very own gym. Sure, you can cycle from point A to point B. But if you’re really looking for some incidental physical activity, why not lean into some of the minor inconveniences of city life? To get you started, here are a few suggestions.
1. Don’t just wait for the bus or train—chase after it
There’s true value in real-time transit data. A 2015 study suggests it can increase public transit ridership in part by taking the guessing game out of the picture. That means you can also plan to push the limits a little. Instead of using the data to get to the bus stop in a comfortable window of time, figure out when to leave at the last minute so you’ll have to sprint.
Even that brief dash can do your heart some good. For older folks, jogging or walking briskly—the researchers suggests a pace of 130 to 140 steps per minute, if you’re counting—can generate the same level of intensity as sprinting, as it’s all relative to your age, weight, and physical ability. (You know your limits best.)
2. Pump those arms with a massive grocery haul
There’s at least one benefit to the fact that online grocery delivery hasn’t caught on in the U.S.: It’s an opportunity to flex your muscles. Whether you have to walk your groceries all the way home or just to your car, there’s a chance to put your arms to work on your next trip to the store.
HIIT isn’t all about aerobics; health authorities say you should also incorporate strength training. That often means doing pushups and lifting weights—both can intimidating in their own rights—but you’d be surprised how easily your grocery haul can knock the wind out of you after carrying it around a little while.
So the next time you’re at the grocery store, try ditching the push cart. Strengthen your core as you lift your bags, then work those biceps as you huff and puff your way home, around the store, or even from check-out to the parking lot.
3. Don’t let the city’s trash problem go to waste
The Swedes have already turned the act of picking up trash while running into a true sport, called plogging. But you don’t have to be a runner to get in on the action. So keep your eyes sharp and your core tight. The mere act of bending down and reaching for those candy wrappers or crushed cans can give you a decent workout, if not a good stretch. Maybe throw in a squat if you can handle it.
4. See each broken escalator as an opportunity
If your city is anything like my home of Washington, D.C., it has a lot of escalators that aren’t doing their job. Walking up an escalator—whether it’s working or not—can really get your heart rate up, and even have you breaking a sweat if it’s long enough. Just 30 seconds of climbing stairs is good, and you don’t have to go fast, or all the way. Just make sure, if you do stop, to move to the right. To the same effect, you can always opt for stairs over elevators, even if it’s only for a flight or two before you catch a ride from a different floor.
5. Explore your city
This one is offered in earnest. It’s easy to take the same route to work every day, a route that’s deliberately picked to be the fastest, most convenient, and most efficient. So, next time, change it up, if only just a little. You just might get some extra steps, or encounter something unexpected, whether it’s a hill or a dance party—all things that will encourage you to expend just a little more energy than usual.
While you’re wandering about, use it as an opportunity to incorporate what the researchers call “walking sprints” into your otherwise leisurely stroll. Increase your pace “until you feel your heart rate is increasing and you find yourself out of breath to the point that you find it hard to speak,” they recommend. That is, the discovery of something new hasn’t already taken your breath away.