If you ask most busy people why they don’t exercise, by far the most common reason is that that they “don’t have time.” The effort of putting on workout clothes, going to the gym, and showering is simply too onerous to fit in. Even the idea of a boring home workout, or a 30-minute exercise tape, can feel like too much of a “commitment” when we’re late for work or for a date.

I personally admit to having roller-coaster exercise habits myself. I’ll be a gym rat for three months, followed by four months of sloth and busyness. A few years ago I finally realized how crappy I felt when I hadn’t exercised, and I resolved to find some way to ensure I was at least getting some exercise every day—even when I couldn’t make it to the gym.

The result was micro workouts—a series of small habits that I can work into my existing day without having to carve out any additional time for a “workout.” Micro workouts have made it possible for me to exercise daily while still spending 60-80 hours per week running Brainscape.

[See also: How to study while exercising]

8 Ways to implement micro workouts without really trying

Man walking up stairs exercise without gym
Here are 7 ideas for how to exercise with micro workouts and ditch the gym.

1. Walk (and talk)

Rather than doing your meetings over “coffee,” why don’t you invite people to go for a walking meeting? Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, and many U.S. Presidents have been huge advocates of this practice for both health and camaraderie purposes. Even if you’re just taking a phone call, use it as an opportunity to take a walk around the block (or to your next destination).

2. Take the stairs

Need to go up? Take the stairs. It’s 30 seconds of quality cardiovascular exercise that’ll give your pulse rate a real kick in the derrière

“But my classroom/office is on the 17th floor!”

Take the stairs! Listen, if you're on the 17th floor, that’s 5-10 minutes of hard-core cardio that’s going to energize your body and brain and send you to that class raring to learn. Failing that, take the elevator to the 10th floor and walk the rest.

(Just make sure you wear deodorant. No one wants their biology lecture or board meeting with a side of BO.)

Seriously though, taking the stairs is the easiest way you can seamlessly fit exercise into your daily routine without even trying. It might not seem like much but the health benefits are enormous, especially if you find yourself taking the stairs several times per day. (Bonus: the stairs are often faster.)

3. Exercise while waiting

Waiting for the subway? Do some calf raises! Afraid someone’s watching? Do toe lifts (they’re more subtle and work your shins). Having 30 seconds to kill is a great cue to kick off a mini-exercise.

4. Make the housework more fun

Most of us would rather hug a grizzly bear than do more housework but if you find an attractive anchor habit for your household chores, you could actually trick your brain into looking forward to the thing you usually hate doing! 

Allow me to explain: housework is pretty physical, right? (I recently set my Apple Watch to record a house-cleaning session and after one hour of vacuuming, taking out the trash, and wiping down the counters, I’d burned 278 calories: the easy equivalent of a standard gym workout!)

Anyway, the real “trick” I employ is to only allow myself to listen to my favorite podcast when doing the housework. Now my brain associates all that boring cleaning with its favorite mental fodder and I actually look forward to it every week. Plus, I get a clean house out of the effort!

You could also try listening to your favorite tunes and turn the housework into a house party

Man dancing while cleaning the house

5. Exercise while brushing your teeth

You probably already spend 1-3 minutes brushing and flossing your teeth, at least once a day. Why not brush your teeth while holding a deep squat, or while doing side leg lifts? These things are perfectly doable and add no additional time to your tooth-brushing activities. Simply tell yourself that you have no excuse for brushing your teeth without holding a deep squat. No matter how tired you are.

6. Exercise while watching TV

This doesn’t just mean to put a treadmill in your living room (although that does help for some people). You can do nearly any exercise while watching TV and even make a game out of it: “I’m allowed to watch another show if I do 50 pushups.” You should be earning the right to watch that trashy reality show.

7. Exercise while you learn

Here’s a real doozy of a hack…

Get the smart study app Brainscape, find or make flashcards for the subject you’re studying in school or college, and then exercise while you’re using the app to study. (If you've graduated from college and are already working, find flashcards in something that interests you: perhaps a language like French or Spanish; a skill like management or humour; or just improve your general knowledge!)

For starters, Brainscape leverages spaced repetition and a whole suite of cognitive learning tactics to help you learn TWICE as fast as traditional studying. Now, if you layer this into the time you spend exercising every day—or add exercise to the time you spend studying every day—you can literally shave two cats with one razor! (Or however the saying goes.)

Personally, I take my phone with me on my afternoon walks and practice my flashcards while I walk, whispering the answers under my breath so that I don’t look like a crazy person talking to myself. You could also easily do this on the treadmill.

Check out ‘How to study while exercising’ (or watch the following video) for some great tips on how to learn AND “get swole” at the same time.

8. Exercise at your desk

Rather than resigning yourself to the fact that sitting is slowly killing you, you can take advantage of your desk time by doing toe raises, arm circles, or wrist stretches. You could even do squats or lunges while taking a break or listening to a webinar. “Office job” does not have to mean “sedentary job.” You can even study while you exercise.

9. Sit on an exercise ball while you work/study

All it takes is one oversized beach ball and—voila!—you’ve transformed your living space into a personal fitness haven! There are a ton of workout routines on YouTube—Caroline Girvan is my favorite—but even just using your exercise ball as a study chair will improve your core strength and balance. It’s also much better for your posture than a regular chair.

(The last time I tried slouching on an exercise ball, I ended up with a panoramic view of the ceiling.)

The point here is that a single piece of gym equipment—the humble exercise ball—introduces a ton of potential for core strength-building exercises and balance drills, which you can do while you study or between study sessions.

10. Exercise at a traffic light

When we’re stuck at a light for a few minutes, our first instinct is often to check our phones. That’s dangerous (and in some places, like Canada, totally illegal)! Why not keep some hand weights in the console, so you can work out your grip whenever you find yourself idling?

11. Actually GO shopping to get more exercise

NO, get off Amazon.com. I mean: actually GO shopping. This may be bad advice for some people; so if you have a tendency to overspend, maybe skip this one. But for those who rely on home delivery services for all their shopping needs, maybe set one hour per week aside to actually get out and go shopping.

Sure, you could be more efficient by getting your groceries delivered but the point of this is to get active! Wandering about the mall or through your local markets is actually a pretty effective way to exercise without even trying: kinda like going for a walk but with the added benefit of coming home with the stuff you need to eat and live.

(Speaking of food—and on the subject of healthier living—definitely check out our guide on optimizing your brain health for effective studying’.)

Woman overloaded with shopping bags

12. Park (or ask to be dropped off) further away

Be one of those kids who asks their parents to drop them off further away from school… not because you’re an insensitive brat but, rather, because you want the exercise! 

If your parents are no longer driving you places then you could always park further away or get off the bus or train sooner, thereby compelling yourself to walk a bit further. 

Why wrestle with your willpower to get up early to exercise when you can just step off the bus 2-3 stops before your actual stop? It’s amazing how much exercise you can get done daily when you eliminate decision-making from your to-do list. 

(Hey, and if “exercising more” has long been on your NYE wish list, make sure you read: ‘How to keep your New Year's Resolutions (or any goals)... FINALLY’.)

13. Help other people

Help a friend to move; carry an elderly person’s groceries; take a neighbor’s dog for a walk; run errands for your mom; or lend your dad a hand with the yard work… all of these chores require time and effort, which is kinda off-brand with my whole “exercise without even trying” schtick. 

But hear me out.

These tasks are also acts of kindness that help out the people around you and invest in the quality of your relationship with them. And this will directly feed your mental well-being and sense of purpose, which will inspire you in all of your other goals, both personal and professional. 

They’re also really great forms of exercise!

Whoever thought that a simple yet thoughtful gesture like helping a friend move furniture could give you abs you could grate cheese on?

Friends furniture moving scene pivot

14. Exercise you can do daily: Play with kids

Have you ever watched kids play? They, like, run everywhere! They yell, they leap, they climb, they roll around… it’s amazing how much energy they have. 

Can you tell where this is going?

Yep, go on and get in there and play! (Just please don’t be weird and play with other people’s kids without their express permission.)

If you don’t have kids or if your friends or siblings don’t have kids, you could always volunteer to teach a class of young ones a sport or a skill. Once again, this is about giving back to your community in a way that helps you maintain an active lifestyle while feeding into a much greater sense of purpose, both of which are really great for your mental health!

(If you liked these tips, you’ll probably also like this guide: ‘Small life-changing habits that take ZERO time’)

15. Actually carve out seven minutes of your day to exercise

I’ve recently been using an excellent iPhone app called 7-Minute Workout, which has totally changed my life. Its simple, voice-guided power workouts make it easy to exercise in my bedroom using only my body and some basic props, and the app’s “game mechanics” help make the experience fun rather than a chore. The best part is that, no matter how busy I am, I always have time for a seven-minute workout. I’m currently rocking a three-month daily workout streak and counting.

You don't need the gym to exercise

Exercising without going to the gym

These small exercises may sound like a lot to remember, but you can just start one-at-a-time until each thing becomes a true habit. The trick is to associate exercises with “mini-cues.” Tell yourself that “If I take the elevator three floors or lazily brush my teeth without squatting, then I am missing a huge opportunity for growth.” Once you have internalized these habits and associated them with a cue, you won’t really have to think about exercising at all. It just happens.

Of course, I am not a health professional and these are my opinions. And of course, if you do have time to exercise (and are cleared by your doctor), then get to the damn gym and get a real workout in!

[Did you know exercise helps your brain? Check out our massive guide for how to optimize your brain health and learning.]