Originally written for The Washington Post, October 11, 2017
We often get derailed in our exercise routines because we can’t fit the perfect workout into our day. We think we must go to a gym, or a certain class, or use a particular technique. And we end up doing nothing at all. According to the annual State of Obesity report, “Eighty percent of American adults do not meet the government’s national physical activity recommendations for aerobic activity and muscle strengthening.” It’s time to move. No matter how small. Slowly build a workout routine that fits in with your lifestyle.
Here are some building blocks. If you do one exercise from each category below and three sets of 10 reps, it should take about seven to 10 minutes. Believe me: You can fit it in.
Standing straight and breathing: Take a moment and stand tall: ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over knees, knees over heels. Reach the top of your head toward the ceiling as if being pulled up by a string. Inhale; fill your lungs, belly, sides and back; and exhale, engaging your abdominals while continuing to keep your posture. Take a handful of deep breaths. If you can’t stand, then sit in good posture and breathe.
Round and arch: Start on all fours with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. On an exhale, round your back, chin to chest, tucking your tailbone under as if you’re trying to reach your nose, and round your entire spine. On an inhale, arch your spine, look up and move your tailbone as if you’re reaching toward the ceiling.
Opposing reach: Start on all fours with shoulders over wrists and hips over knees. Exhale and engage your stomach without moving your spine. Then reach one hand forward with the opposite leg reaching back. So, while the right hand is reaching to the wall in front of you, the left leg is stretching to the wall behind. Keep the hips level and the abdominals engaged, and stretch your fingers and toes as far away from each other as possible.
Reach for the sky and down to the floor: Standing tall with good posture, inhale and reach your fingers up toward the ceiling. Then, on exhale, reach your hands wide and stretch toward the floor. Slowly round the spine, reaching your hands to touch the floor. Keep a slight bend in the knees, a deeper bend if needed. Inhale while your hands are pointed to the floor and, on an exhale, engage the abdominals and slowly unwind as you stand up tall and reach your hands to the ceiling.
Reach over: In a tall posture, reach one arm toward the ceiling and then toward the opposite wall. In a standing position, if you lift your right arm up and over, you can feel the stretch along the arm and all the way on the side of the right torso. To advance the stretch, reach your right leg back either by slightly stepping back or lunging back. This should take the stretch along the front of the right thigh and hip flexors.
Push-up: This is an all-around excellent exercise and can be done in various ways. You can stand up with your hands against the wall, or start on all fours and focus only on bending the arms with a long spine, keeping your knees on the floor and creating a straight line from your knees to the crown of your head. Or try the full exercise with a straight line from the top of your head to your heels. It is essential to stay tight in your core to do a push-up correctly. With abdominals tight and spine in a solid neutral position, squeeze your glutes and keep your shoulders over your wrists. Ideally, you’d start at a level where you can get your arms to a deep bend, close to 90 degrees.
Triceps dip: Very similar to the push-up, but flipped over. You can keep your bottom on the floor and bend your elbows, or you can be in a tabletop position with your hips toward the ceiling while bending the arms. Fingers should face the toes, and elbows should point straight back. Shoulders stay relaxed. Feel the work in the triceps.
Back extension: We spend so much time rounding forward while sitting, but we forget to bend our spine in the opposite direction. Lie facedown on the floor, with your hands just under the shoulder and your elbows facing back. Feel your elbows pulling back toward the wall behind you. Exhale and engage your stomach while slowly lifting your chest. Most people push their hands into the ground and bend their head back. Instead, imagine the spine bending. Keep the stomach engaged and feel your back muscles as you arch your spine.
Squat: This is a personal favorite. Start with a tall posture, open feet to eight to 12 inches and shift the weight to your heels. Imagine there is a small stool a little too far behind you and you’re sitting back into it. With the chest lifted and abdominals engaged, sit back. If you’re new to squats, actually set a chair or stool behind you. Otherwise, sit until your thighs are parallel to the floor. When standing up, have weight in your heels, squeeze the abdominals and use your glutes to stand up. Stances such as narrow, wide, feet turned out and feet turned in are variations that let you use different muscles. Always be sure that your hips, knees and toes are facing the same direction.
Lunge: I call the lunge the complicated sibling of the squat. A lunge incorporates more balance and stability. When you lunge back, stay mindful of your feet, knees, hips, torso and shoulders. Weight is in the front heel; notice how that activates the front glute. Have the knee just over the ankle, and lunge down so the front thigh is parallel to the floor. Create the appropriate stance so you can be strong in the posture. Feel your abdominals engaged and spine tall and long. Every time you rise, feel your glutes engage and lift you. Lateral, curtsy, walking and reverse are variations that add complexity and work different muscles.
Bridge: Lie on your back and start with a relaxed neck and upper body. Bend your legs and keep your feet planted on the floor, with your feet and knees hips’ width apart. With arms long, keep your hands pushing into the floor to assist with engaging the triceps and upper back. As you lift your hips, keep the heels planted and feel the engagement of the glutes and back of the legs. The goal is to lift the hips so there is a straight line from the knees to shoulders. It is common for people to arch their back and flare their ribs. It’s also common for knees to roll in or out. Avoid this. Engage the stomach and keep the spine long. Variations include one-legged bridges and leg lifts.
Plank: Create the stance to start a push-up: shoulders directly over wrists, spine long, abdominals engaged, glutes squeezed and legs tight. If needed, drop to your knees with the same posture. Focus on your breath and squeeze your abdominals with each exhale. Support your lower back with no overarching and keep the core tight. To add variation, you can lift one knee toward the elbow. You could also try a side plank. Rotate your entire body so your feet are stacked on top of each other and your hips, belly button and chest are facing the side, then reach the top hand toward the ceiling while the bottom shoulder stretches away from the ear.
Abdominal crunches: There are countless abdominal exercises. The key is to use your core for the work rather than pulling your neck or squeezing your glutes. It is common for the body to think of every escape route to avoid the key core muscles. The first step is using the breath to engage. Inhale, filling your abdomen with air, and on the exhale, squeeze your belly. Feel as if the exhale causes a “scooping” sensation in your stomach. Don’t move anything. Use your breath to engage your stomach. Then, when you have that skill, you can lift your head or legs, incorporate twists or add variations.
Add some cardiovascular work if you’re interested. Anything can work, but here are some ideas. If it’s aerobic work, you’re focusing on slow and steady and can work for two- to five-minute intervals. If you’re focusing on anaerobic work, do high-intensity sprints for 15 to 60 seconds and go for an intensity level that leaves you very out of breath.
Burpee: When first getting used to this exercise, take it step by step. As you advance, the movement becomes much more of a flow. Start standing, drop your hands to the floor and jump your legs back, and lie on the floor as quickly as possible. Then, on an exhale, pull your legs in and jump back up to a standing position.
Squat jumps: Squat down, shift the weight back and jump and reach toward the ceiling. When landing, bend knees to go right back to a squat.
These are just a handful of exercise that can be done with no equipment. They can be done anywhere, anytime: indoors, outdoors, morning, evening. Make it work for you. Listen to your body and take small steps toward improving your strength and fitness.