Easy Ways to Exercise at Home When the Gym Is No Longer an Option
As we continue to adjust to new environments and schedules, Take 5 Daily has been publishing blogs to support you in getting used to working from home, to help you manage stress during a crisis, and to provide tips for dealing with social isolation.
A key part of wellness that has been disrupted by stay-at-home mandates, particularly if you exercise at a public gym or health club, is the ability to exercise and maintain a regularly active lifestyle. Regular exercise is vital for supporting immune function and overall heart health.
When adjusting to a new normal, building a new routine around exercise and fitness helps manage feelings of isolation, boredom, loss of control, and stress. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends in Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans1 that adults aim for 150-500 minutes weekly of moderate-intensity activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity – or a combination of the two.
But as gyms and group classes close, many of us are on our own to best re-create our fitness routines in seemingly less than ideal situations. We all know the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention,” so now is the time to get creative and adjust your exercise routine to your current situation.
I’ve been fortunate in my career to work in situations where training was necessary even when conditions weren’t perfect. I’ve worked alongside some of the best strength and conditioning coaches in sports, and repeatedly seen that a great coach can design a program around any situation and equipment or lack thereof.
Observing a coach support an injured athlete who is no longer able to grip a bar or weight, and knowing that Special Forces operators continue to train while deployed in harsh situations, it’s clear there are only two things you need to meet your fitness needs – your body and your mind.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
While I am far from being a professional athlete, I have nevertheless found myself using these same lessons in recent years, because I often find myself on the road staying in hotels.
At the most minimal level, you can always use your body weight to train, but adding a little bit of creativity and ingenuity can open the possibilities for expanding your workouts and preventing boredom.
I have two pieces of equipment I always travel with – resistance bands and my backpack. Resistance bands are cheap and portable (I have had clients use bike tire inner tubes and other assorted materials in a pinch) and an easy way to increase the difficulty of bodyweight exercises.
However, I can argue that my backpack is my most versatile piece of improvised training equipment. Depending on the grip I take, a backpack that is loaded with books, water bottles, or anything else heavy becomes an adjustable dumbbell or kettlebell.
Worn on my back or front, papoose style, the backpack becomes a modified weight vest that instantly increases the difficulty of squats, lunges, and other bodyweight exercises. A brisk walk or other cardio exercise with just 15-20 extra pounds on your back can significantly increase workload.
Both bodyweight and improvised exercise routines are hardly a new concept; they have been around since ancient times. An early example of progressive loading is the story of the sixth century BC, 6-time Olympic wrestling champion, Milo of Croton, who was said to have carried a calf on his shoulder from a young boy, and as the calf grew to a bull, Milo grew with him.
Legendary strength competitor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently shared on Instagram a bodyweight routine he used for years not requiring exercise equipment. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has provided a template for a total body circuit that doesn’t require exercise equipment, as well as a library of workout routines from their Health & Fitness Summit events you can do in your home without equipment.
Using Your Bodyweight
When starting a bodyweight routine, it is essential to manage expectations and allow your body to slowly adjust to the exercise to minimize the risk of injury.
When starting an at-home exercise program, it is recommended that you start with either a set number of repetitions or a set number of cycles throughout the exercise. Take your time and split the repetitions into as many sets as you need.
For example, if you’re aiming to do 50 push-ups daily, you might start with 10 sets of five push-ups spread throughout the day and eventually move to two sets of 25, before increasing the total number of push-ups for the day.
When doing a circuit, aim for decreasing the time it takes to complete five rounds of the circuit before increasing the intensity or the number of times you complete the training loop. Care should be taken to make sure you perform each exercise with ideal form, because when fatigue sets in and proper form fails, the risk of injury increases.
Twenty perfect-form push-ups are more beneficial than 50 poorly performed ones. For more information on proper form of many exercises, ACSM has a resource library with videos and techniques.
Now that you have been introduced to bodyweight exercising, it’s time to look around and see what improvised exercise equipment you already have.
Examples I have had clients and friends use to increase the difficulty of exercises
- Backpack/duffle bag filled with anything heavy
- Gallon jugs filled with water, sand, etc.
- PVC pipe capped at both ends and filled with water, sand, etc.
- Weighted blankets
- Bulk bags of rice, beans, etc.
- Children (seriously)
- Furniture – yes, I’ve seen friends squat and overhead press their couch! (But don’t try this at home unless you have a spotter!)
- A broomstick or PVC pipe can become a make-shift barbell.
- Dishtowels or tupperware lids can act as sliders for hamstring curls and other core-specific exercises.
- Chairs/corner shelves become natural places to do dips.
- A sturdy table/desk or a broomstick placed between two chairs becomes a secure place to do row ups.
- A stable ledge, tree branch, or deck becomes a pull-up bar.
Get Outside (When Allowed)
Strength training is just one part of a balanced fitness routine. Cardio and conditioning are also important factors when considering the many benefits of exercise. Although social distancing and limiting time outside have disrupted many people’s regular long runs and bike rides, there are ways you can get your exercise outside while maintaining proper distance.
Stairs and hills
With proper respect for your neighbors, a set of stairs or a decent incline can be the basis for an intense workout. Run, jump, bound up, walk down, repeat. That’s it. You design the intensity, duration, and mix of how you get to the top based on your fitness level – and I promise you will feel it!
When space or time is limited, few exercises challenge the body like a full sprint workout. Our friends at Altis have designed a free comprehensive guide called SprintFIT: A Guide to Sprinting for Fitness that walks you through warm-ups, mobility, training, and cool down. You won’t find a better resource on sprinting anywhere else.
If a sprint workout is not available, or you’re looking to switch up your routine, then ladder drills are one of my favorite no-equipment, limited space workouts. They are especially fun to get your children involved with as well.
Most people don’t likely have a fitness ladder at home, but that’s no problem – you can build a ladder with chalk, baby powder, or spray paint on grass. Other options include parallel lines made of rope, PVC pipe, or yardsticks to bound between. ACSM has a basic primer on ladder drills to get you started, but the possibilities and movements are endless.
Putting It All Together
When it comes to movement, something is always better than nothing – regardless of your age, fitness level, or access to equipment.
Making time to build routines and habits around movement has a multitude of benefits from physical to mental, so use your imagination and have fun with it. An impromptu dance party with your children, the now-famous push-up challenge, or a planned “alone together” online exercise or yoga session with your friends via video chat are all good ways to get exercise and beat social isolation at the same time.
As with any exercise program, you should be mindful of the nutrition side of wellness and have a similar plan in place. We’ve recently discussed food safety and stocking your pantry and be sure to read up on the importance of fueling your workouts and recovering from training for more information.
An important note: No dietary supplement can diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, including COVID-19. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is especially important to understand that no dietary supplement, no diet, and no lifestyle modifications – other than the recommended social distancing and hygiene practices – can prevent you from being infected with the COVID-19 virus. No current research supports the use of any dietary supplement to protect you from being infected with the COVID-19 virus.