After running up and down the stairs at least a gazillion times last week in preparation for a move from a summer house, I noticed that I had, without trying, lost a few pounds. That's funny, I thought. I haven't gone to the gym for a week. But of course those countless trips up and down, carrying innumerable boxes full of books, pots and pans to the garage must have wiped out a few fat cells and maybe even replaced them with some muscle. As this house sale occurred 25 years after we moved in, it was obvious that moving day weight loss would be an infrequent occurrence. But I suspect that many of us encounter unexpected or random situations that, for a while at least, markedly increase our energy output. Those instances include vacations that require hours of walking around cities, gigantic flea markets, house hunting (all those stairs), house breaking a new puppy, raking leaves (over and over again), shoveling snow (repeatedly), removing winter's debris from the garden, planting, weeding, "harvesting" a summer garden, running after a child who has just started to walk and attending a conference that requires walking long distances to the meeting rooms.
A friend who volunteers at a local hospital doing transport, i.e., taking patients by wheelchair outside when they are discharged, never goes to the gym on her volunteer day. "After a day of pushing patients in wheelchairs and carrying all their possessions to the outside pick-up area, my arms feel as if I have been working out," she told me. Even moving to a neighborhood where people walk or bike instead of driving can make a difference in daily amounts of physical activity. I bumped into an acquaintance (our kids went to elementary school together) who moved into town after living in the suburbs for years. She looked trim and fit and was eager to tell me how much walking she does now. "The supermarket was a mile from my old home and in all the years I lived there, I always drove. Now the downtown supermarket is also a mile from our apartment, and I always walk. It is impossible to find a parking place."
Too often we forget that there are often many opportunities, some unavoidable, that cause us to walk long distances, run, climb many stairs, lug objects like groceries or push heavy wheeled vehicles like a wheelchair or wheelbarrow. Whether they are planned or not, these bouts of physical exertion use up calories and decrease weight just as effectively as a stint on a treadmill. Because we focus, or are told to focus, on regular exercise, we forget that there are ways of moving our bodies that do not require a gym, a physical trainer or an exercise class.
But of course, we all know people who will go to great lengths to avoid random bouts of exercise. They drive to all their errands, even to the end of their driveway to get their mail. A snow shovel is discarded in favor of snow blowers, their lawn mowers are the kind one rides on and instead of walking around with a hose to water the garden, underground sprinkler systems are installed. I was watching a show on HGTV many months ago about a couple looking for a home to buy. The woman complained to the realtor about climbing the stairs to a second floor. "I don't want to exert myself so much," she told the real estate agent. "Find me a house without stairs."
Today, we in this country rarely have enough time to exercise. We all know the reasons: work, long commutes, two jobs, job and school, family, travel, no extra money for health clubs and/or equipment, no safe place to walk, or the weather is too hot, cold, icy, rainy or windy. Thus, we should grab whatever opportunity we have to exercise whenever we can, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Is the escalator in your favorite store broken? Wonderful. You can climb the steps. Were you forced to park the car far from the supermarket? Good. You can walk and if possible carry some heavy grocery bags to give your arm muscles a workout. A conference offers an early morning walk/jog for the participants? Join the group. You will be sitting the rest of the day. Put the leash on your dog and take it and you for a walk rather than letting the dog play by itself in the backyard. Your favorite charity is having a flea market sale? Go to your attic or basement and carry bags of unused stuff to your car. Your muscles may hurt but it is for a good cause (and doing so will burn off calories). Did the raccoons rip open your garbage bags? Pick up the debris doing squats (don't bend over, it will hurt your back). Your thighs may burn a bit, but will look more toned.
Of course, none of these suggestions substitutes for regular physical activity. But until that perfect, convenient time arises, look for chances to do unexpected activity whenever you can. The payoff, unexpected weight loss, is very much worth it.
For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.
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