Fitness Microhabits: 19 Small Steps to Improve Your Fitness
Our bodies were built to move, and yet, we often struggle to get an adequate amount of exercise. One of the biggest challenges to achieving fitness is our own inertia and the default sedentary position we assume at home and at work. The following are small, repeatable microhabits that will get you moving a little bit at a time. Start with one or two of these and keep them up. You'll be surprised at how quickly you can string these into substantial exercises.
- Do five push-ups, every single day. If you can do more, great. Commit to doing just five. It takes less than a minute. It may take less than 10 seconds for some. Get into the position, engage your core, and follow good form. Push-ups work your chest, back, and triceps muscles. It is a very effective exercise. Five may seem like a small and insignificant number, but think of it as a gateway to doing more. Five is a long way from zero, and it's halfway to doing double-digits. Bonus: add 1 more rep every week; cap it or go back down if it begins to feel like too much–in 4 months, you could be doing more than 20 push-ups a day!
- Park as far away from the door as possible. Most of the time we want to park as close to the door as possible. But think about it -- you just drove somewhere, which means that you were sitting on your butt the entire time. You have to get from the car to the door anyway, so you might as well walk a bit. Why? It turns out that we burn barely any more calories when sitting vs. standing, a knock against all those who think that their standing desk is helping them lose weight. The most calorie-burning activity that people can do at work? Walking.
- Take the stairs whenever possible. Same principle as parking: you have to get there anyway, so why not build some exercise into your route? Be reasonable about this: you probably don’t want to take the stairs when you have to go up ten flights, but one to five flights seems more than reasonable.
- Walk-and-talk. Turn one-on-one meetings or phone conversations into exercise time. Same principle as stairs and parking, and now you can kill two birds with one stone: get some exercise in AND get your meeting done. The additional increase in circulation and heart-rate are good for fitness, and some additional research suggests that it might even be good for creativity!
- Pick one day a week to walk or bike to work. If you have shower facilities in your office or a gym near your office, this microhabit is even easier to keep. The night before, pack a change of clothes and some toiletries. Keeping an extra toiletry kit just for the gym makes this microhabit more tenable. If you’ve ever walked around London you definitely see people running to and from work with small backpacks that have a change of clothes. The general principle followed here is to make productive use of previously “dead” time, such as time spent in traffic. And if you use previously used your traffic time to catch up on podcasts, you can continue to do that.
- Always be ready for a workout. Always pack a change of gym clothes. This is a lot easier than you think it is: shoes, shorts (sometimes with built-in underwear, at least for men), and a t-shirt will get you through a good weight-lifting session. Buy dark colored or black sneakers / hiking shoes that you can get away with wearing at work -- something flexible enough to work out in that also wouldn’t look out of place in a more formal environment.
- 10 minutes before the start of the hour, get up, stretch, and walk around. Once an hour, stand up and stretch your back, legs, arms, and shoulders. Walk around for a minute: use the time to fill up your water bottle or go to the bathroom. The Apple Watch or other electronic devices such as Fitbits (and some apps) are great for reminding you not to sit too long! If you want to read a really good book on better posture and exercises for combatting long stretches at your desk, check out Deskbound by Kelly Starrett.
- Build a five minute stretching routine into the end of your weightlifting workout. Functional fitness requires flexibility, but we often ignore this aspect of our overall health. Even many experienced weightlifters and people who “look” physically fit may not be able to do basic things such as lift their arms to their shoulders behind their backs. Pick four stretches, for example, a shoulder stretch, a sitting hamstring stretch, hip flexor stretch, and chest stretch and do these at the end of your workout once all of your muscle groups have been activated. Do each for about 30 seconds and rotate between them. In five minutes you’ll have increased your flexibility, which you probably wouldn’t have done at all before. You can increase your flexibility even more by doing some introductory yoga classes or doing a 10-minute free yoga video on Youtube.
- Sit up straight at work, reminding yourself to do so every time you get an email from your boss! Sitting up straight not only stretches out your scrunched up back, neck, and shoulder muscles -- it also changes your body chemistry for the better. It decreases cortisol (hormone related to stress) and increases testosterone. If you don’t naturally have good posture, one potential reinforcing technique is to tie reminders to sit up straight to incoming email. I use the boss as an example (not all of us have bosses, or you might even be the boss!) so pick a cue that works for you. You might need to retrain your posture -- you can try devices like Lumo Tech’s Lumo Lift.
Do 10 proper air squats every day. Air squats are performed without any weights. Squatting in general works a large group of muscles in your body and requires you to have proper mobility in your hips and ankles. If you are new to squatting, be sure to study the proper technique and take it slow. As you get more comfortable and better in your technique, add 1 more rep each week. For a good primer on proper squatting technique, check out this video.
- Start your workout by warming up first. Get your muscles and ligaments warmed up with a few basic movements before you lift or go running. First, rotate your arm in big circles (one at a time) forward 20 times and then backward 20 times. This should loosen up your shoulders and rotator cuffs. Then, do 50 jumping jacks. Be sure to keep your back straight and really go through the motions with your arms. Then do 50 butt-kicks in place (try to kick your butt with your feet) and then finish up with 50 high knees in place.
- Find one new exercise to do each week. If your workout is feeling stale, try looking around at what others are doing in the gym and seeing if maybe there are some new exercises you an add to your routine. Planks, jumping rope, body weight dips, box jumps and burpees are just a few exercises that could improve anyone's workout. For ideas, you can ask around your local gym, simply observe, or go on Youtube and check out what your favorite athletes' workouts look like (this can be inspirational too!)
- Find one new exercise machine to incorporate into your routine each week. another way to improve your workout is to find a machine at the gym you haven't used before and giving it a try. Most weight machines are not useless–in fact, they've been carefully designed to isolate and maximize exercise on a specific area of the body. If you need to spice up your exercise a bit, you could do worse than to add a new machine into your routine.
- Find a podcast, television show, or audiobook to listen to while doing cardio or weightlifting exercises. This microhabit works particularly well if you're not a big fan of cardio. Not only does the content of each make your workout more enjoyable but it also makes you smarter. If you find a particularly compelling audiobook or a podcast, you'll find yourself wanting to go to the gym so that you can get the time to listen to your favorites. If you're looking for something to read or listen to, check out our Growth Library for some suggestions and also our list of 21 podcasts that everyone should subscribe to.
Do a wall sit each day. Wall sits work your inner thighs, quads, and core. Best of it doesn't require equipment and can be done virtually anywhere (you just need to find a wall). Start out by seeing if you can do 30 seconds worth and then move up from there. Check out this video.
Do some chair dips each day. Chair dips work your triceps and are an excellent exercise because they only rely on you having access to a chair. Start out by seeing if you can do 10 chair dips and then add more repetitions as time allows.
Do a plank for 30 seconds every morning. Be sure to check out a tutorial video to ensure proper form. Plank is a great way to engage and activate your core muscles and shoulders. Start off with 30 seconds a day and see if you can gradually add 5 more seconds every day. If you keep it up, you’ll quickly find yourself being able to keep a perfect plank for many minutes. You’ll also notice a stronger core that’ll contribute to better posture and more protection for your back.
Do the couch stretch every day. The couch stretch is an incredibly powerful mobility exercise that opens up the hips and gives your quads a deep stretch. It’s a move that’s a must-do for anyone who sits for long periods of time at a desk. Below is a video of a couch stretch in action. If you find it difficult, start slow and don't force anything that can cause injury. To keep yourself honest, use your phone’s stopwatch feature to keep track of the time you're doing it. We typically like to commit to 2 minutes per leg, but you may want to start with less. We also like to use a blanket under the knee. If you find it difficult to get your knees right up against the couch from day 1, start a few inches away and each week, slowly inch your way closer. Keep doing this daily and you’ll thank us for how good your hips and legs feel a couple months from now.
Jump rope 100 times daily. Watch a tutorial video to get your form right. The key is to keep your knees bent, always be on your toes, and to have your core engaged. Land softly and in a controlled manner. When we don’t have a jump rope around, we like to do phantom jump ropes and they work just fine. Jump roping is a great way to strengthen your feet, your legs, and to work up your heart rate very quickly. We find it most useful as a warm-up before we go for a long run. Bonus: do it barefoot. See if you can keep it up daily for a month and as you get in the habit of doing it every single day, increase the volume. You’ll see that it’s quite easy to get it up to doing it several hundred if not more than a thousand times a day.