Some days we wake up well-rested and thrilled to tackle the day ahead. Others, we’d rather roll back over, hit snooze, and fake a cold to get out of work. Regardless of how much energy we have, part of maintaining our health is staying active. But the truth is, we don’t always have it in us to run a 5K, take a group fitness class, or hit the elliptical.
To keep your body moving and your heart pumping, one of the best ways to live a more active lifestyle is to incorporate incidental exercise into your daily life. Incidental exercise refers to short, sporadic bursts of physical activity that don’t require having to invest or schedule an hour out of your day, get crazy-sweaty, or join a fancy studio. It’s a small, but meaningful habit shift that can pay off long-term, helping you get the healthy exercise your body craves and fend off the harmful impacts of sitting all day.
So how do you make it happen? We chatted with certified personal trainers to explore incidental exercise, its benefits, and how we can all make slight adjustments to reap big rewards.
What is incidental exercise?
Much like it sounds, incidental exercise is any small bout of unstructured or unplanned physical activity that occurs throughout the day, explains Aimee Nicotera, MS, a certificated personal trainer, instructor and health coach. It could also be referred to as N.E.A.T. exercise—or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. As a paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine defines it:
“Incidental [physical activity] is any activity that is part of one’s daily living that is not done with the purpose of recreation or health and requires no sacrifice of discretionary time. For example, walking or cycling to move from place to place, stair climbing and active daily chores, such as carrying heavy shopping and house cleaning.”
“Both N.E.A.T. and incidental exercise are important and beneficial because they contribute to a person’s total daily caloric expenditure, though burned through movement outside of structured exercise,” Nicotera adds.
Your baseline level of incidental exercise is the physical activity you get during the day organically, and this differs for everyone, explains Joyce Shulman, a certified personal trainer and the co-founder and CEO of 99 Walks and Jetti Fitness. Oftentimes incidental exercise occurs organically and is something you’re already doing a lot without even realizing it.
A professional who spends most of their time sitting at a desk at their computer or attending meetings likely won’t be getting much incidental exercise throughout the day without incorporating it intentionally. But for someone like a professional dog walker, their incidental exercise includes all the walking done during a work day, Shulman says. And if you’re a stay-at-home parent to a toddler, your incidental exercise likely includes chasing your kiddo around or picking them up and down throughout the day.
“Despite the fact that incidental exercise largely happens organically, our daily lives typically present opportunities to increase that level,” Shulman says. “The trick here is to look for those windows that present themselves in your life and take them [if you’re able to].”
Is incidental exercise alone effective enough?
According to current physical exercise guidelines, adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. How you end up breaking this down doesn’t matter all that much, but staying consistently active does (you’re better of doing a bit of something every day, if possible, instead of cramming everything in over the weekend, for example). “We need to get our heart rates up, move our bodies, and maybe even break a sweat,” Nicotera says.
In theory, she says that if a person accumulates a little over 20 minutes of incidental exercise daily, they could meet this recommendation, and it’s an effective way to maintain movement. “If someone is looking to get more activity in, incidental exercise is a great way to add to other structured exercise activities,” she says. “If it is the only activity a person does, it’s better than nothing, and depending on their other personal habits may be enough to maintain good health.”
Nicotera shares a few examples of opportunities to get incidental exercise in your normal, everyday routine:
- Walking to lunch on your break.
- Taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.
- Getting up and walking to visit an office mate instead of sending an email or making a call.
- Parking farther away from the entrance of an establishment.
- Playing outside with your kids or dogs.
- Walking to a local restaurant or coffee shop.
- Walking to the mailbox.
- Doing yard work.
- Shoveling snow.
- Washing and cleaning your car yourself.
- Cleaning your house, including vacuuming, sweeping, and so on.
Your bestie loves spin classes, and your partner enjoys rock climbing and lifting heavy weights to stay fit. But if traditional fitness formats aren’t your jam, you may wonder if racking up some incidental exercise throughout the day is enough movement to meet those above physical activity needs.
Sara Haley, certified personal trainer and pre- and postnatal exercise specialist, says incidental exercise is usually low to moderate intensity since it involves activities performed during daily tasks or routines.
“While it helps increase overall physical activity, it most likely won’t give you the same level of intensity required for cardiovascular fitness and strength gains or significant calorie burning,” she adds.
Additionally, incidental exercise alone may not always be quite enough exercise for most adults, since strength-training and/or resistance training is so important, too. “Most workouts allow you to target specific muscle groups and work on specific fitness goals and allow for progressive overload, where you gradually increase the difficulty or intensity of your workouts over time,” Haley says. “Incidental exercise does not focus on either.”
How to Get More Incidental Exercise
While it’s still smart to work out more intensely a few times throughout the week, you can add more activity into your daily life through incidental exercise, there are many options. Most of them are fairly simple to incorporate and might even be habits you’ve tried to form in the past. Try these four to see a benefit:
Walk when you can.
Haley says the quickest and easiest way to add more incidental exercise into your life is to walk whenever possible. Pay attention to when windows of opportunity appear, allowing you to use your own two feet instead of wheels. Haley says examples include walking to a destination instead of starting up your engine. Parking further away from the front door of a store or restaurant so you have a mini commute. Taking a walking meeting rather than sitting around a conference table for a 1:1 discussion. And, of course, taking the stairs instead of the elevator if you’re only going a few floors up or down.
Mix in active outings.
On the weekends, when you’re spending quality time with your children, partner, or friend group, you can incorporate incidental exercise by picking an active adventure instead of a sedentary one. Nicotera says this might mean taking an afternoon nature walk instead of watching a movie. Or going on a scavenger hunt with the kids vs. scrolling on your phone while they play on a playground. Shop in person, in town, instead of online shopping. Be a tourist in your own city.
Play and dance to music.
A great way to enhance your incidental exercise is to put on music during household chores, such as vacuuming, sweeping, or dusting, Haley says. The upbeat jams encourage you to dance and groove, increasing your heart rate and boosting your activity level during an otherwise mundane task.
Plant and tend a garden.
“Gardening is an incredible source of incidental exercise,” Shulman says. Whether you have a huge backyard, a petite front lawn, or a city-sized balcony, creating a green oasis counts as incidental exercise. You’ll bend, stretch, lift, carry, pull, and push, working harder than you even realize to get that garden going.