30 Oct 2014
By Belle

How to get more exercise on workdays

shoes on grass

I'm reading Brain Rules by John Medina at the moment, and the first chapter really hit home. John shares study after study that shows how regular, moderate exercise can help keep both our bodies and brains in shape as we age.

Exercise can reignite cognitive processes that we've long stopped using, improved kids' cognitive performance at school, and can decrease your risk of developing dementia. John's brain rule for chapter one really sums it up:

Exercise boosts brain power.

I already knew I should exercise more. We all know exercise is good for us. But sometimes it takes a particular person to say it in a particular way, after you've already heard it plenty of times, before a lesson truly sinks in. This was the one that made me really want to exercise more—in fact, as I read that first chapter I jumped up and started walking on the treadmill while I read.

Since then I've been looking for more ways to increase my exercise during the workday. In particular, light-to-moderate walking. I work at a desk, and every minute I'm walking is generally a minute I can't work, since I don't have a treadmill desk (yet... I may end up trying one). So the trick is to find ways to make exercise fit into my day so I don't put it off in order to work more.

Here's what's working for me so far.

Use walking time for learning

Since that first chapter, I've been reading my brain book while walking on my treadmill most days. I'm aiming to read 30-60 mins of nonfiction every weekday, and since I'm sitting around my house while I do that anyway, I figure I might as well walk slowly on the treadmill.

When I go for a walk outside I like listening to podcasts (This American Life, seanwes, and the How to Start a Startup lectures are my favourites), or sometimes audiobooks. I especially enjoy walking while listening to the How to Start a Startup lectures, as I find this is a good way to let the advice sink in and mull it over. Sometimes I'll go for a walk in a park near my house while listening, and when I've walked through the park and back, if I'm still enjoying the episode I'll go buy a coffee and wander around my suburb until it's finished.

If podcasts aren't your thing, you could also try something like Umano, which is full of news articles read aloud. I find listening while walking often means I come home again brimming with ideas. It's a great way to get the creative juices flowing and take in new information and ideas while getting some exercise.

Work outside

I sometimes take a notebook or my laptop to a café or park when I have a couple of blog posts ready to be drafted, or lots of research to read through. Being disconnected from the internet forces me to find the parts of my work that don't require an internet connection and focus more clearly on doing one thing at a time.

The walk to get to a new workspace adds some exercise into my day, and both the fresh air and greenery of a park and the vibrant atmosphere of a café can be a nice change to my working environment.

I've never gotten into this habit, but you can take this a step further by turning the process into "workstation popcorn": an idea that comes from Joel Runyon's blog post. Workstation popcorn sees you moving to a new workspace after a set period of time, or when a set task is done. Maybe you start at a park and only leave when you've completed a sketch you're happy with, then walk to a café where you draft a blog post, and finally walk to a different café to do some research. Between each "workstation", you get a mental break from working, new stimulation by changing your surroundings, and some exercise.

Walk and talk

I haven't had lots of meetings lately (I try to avoid them), but when I do I love that sometimes I can turn them into walking meetings. Not everyone is open to this idea, and if I'm meeting someone at their office, I generally don't push to get them outside for a walk. If someone asks to meet me for a coffee, though, that's a great opportunity to walk and talk—even if we grab a coffee first.

Most of my "phone" meetings use Skype, so I don't have the advantage of turning phone meetings into walking meetings, but if you do I'd highly recommend it. If you have to take the call anyway, you might as well fit in some exercise at the same time—it's not like you could be working instead.

Walk and think

When I'm really stuck and I find myself sitting around wasting time because I can't get started on anything, I often go for a short walk. Walking away from the problem can sometimes help clear my head and open up new ideas, or even just provide some inspiration to work on something else, so I'm not wasting time while I'm stuck.

The exercise I get when doing this is a bonus; I do it to get myself unstuck. Sometimes I'll read or listen to podcasts for a little while and then go out for a walk to let the information ruminate. Other times I'll finish a long research session and need a break from the material before going into writing mode, so I'll take a walk to let all the research sink in.

One last note: If you struggle to find the motivation to go out for a walk as I often do, try finding excuses to get outside, like errands you need to run. I don't plan my groceries all that well, so I often need extra things during the week that I didn't think of when doing my weekly shop—the benefit of this is more excuses for walks outside. Posting letters, picking up parcels, visiting friends who work nearby, and just going out for coffee all work for me as good excuses to take a break from my desk.

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