Harvard Health Letter

Exercise-free activities that work your muscles and heart

Dancing, playing sports, and even cleaning your house can give you a nontraditional workout that helps maintain good health.

bowling-exercise-free-activities
Image: Jon Feingersh/Thinkstock

Exercising is supposed to be a regular part of your daily health maintenance. That can be a problem if you don't have the motivation to get your heart pumping; you raise your risk for weight gain, chronic disease, and an earlier death.

Fortunately, you can get plenty of effective exercise by engaging in recreational or household activities that work your heart and muscles. "There's a real reward in doing an activity you enjoy, such as swimming or playing with your grandchildren. You get a workout, but it doesn't seem like you're exercising, and you may be more willing to keep doing that activity every day because it's fun," says Dawn Rogers, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Considerations

If you'd like to substitute other types of activity for traditional workouts, you'll have to do some planning. First, choose an activity that gets you moving. "It should be something that increases your heart rate and makes you change positions and move your muscles," says Rogers. Take gardening, for example: it involves carrying a watering can, walking around the yard, and squatting close to the ground. "That's similar to weight lifting and squats. You work your leg, buttocks, and core muscles," says Rogers.

Some activities, such as bowling, are less intense than others, like bicycling (see "Try these fun calorie burners"). "Less-intense activities may not be enough to trigger weight loss, but they will definitely help you maintain good health," says Rogers.

Before starting any new vigorous activity, however, Rogers urges you to get the all-clear from your doctor, especially if you have heart disease or any other chronic health condition. People with balance problems or joint pain may need an evaluation by a physical therapist before taking on new activity.

Tips for success

Since you need a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week, you'll have to keep track of the time you spend doing nontraditional workouts. Rogers suggests several strategies, such as these:

  • Use an activity tracker. Take advantage of a pedometer app on your smartphone, buy a low-cost pedometer (you can find them for a few dollars in a drugstore or big-box store), or buy a tracker you wear on your wrist or slip into a pocket (prices range from $45 to $200).

  • Set a kitchen timer and do an activity in your house, such as dancing, cleaning, or calisthenics.

  • Keep an activity journal. Write down the types of activities you engage in throughout the day and how many minutes you spend doing them. Bring the journal to your doctor if you'd like to share your progress.

  • Use a memo board in a prominent spot to record your progress. Seeing the numbers frequently may be a motivator.

"When you can see what you've been doing each day, you'll know if you're on target. If you haven't been as active one day, you can add more minutes the next day. It's especially rewarding and motivating to see your progress," says Rogers.

Try these fun calorie burners

Activity

Calories burned in 30 minutes if you weigh...

125 pounds

155 pounds

185 pounds

Bicycling (12–13.9 mph)

240

298

355

Bowling

90

112

133

Dancing (disco, ballroom, square)

165

205

244

Gardening

135

167

200

Golf (using cart)

105

130

155

Hiking (cross-country)

180

223

266

Playing with kids (moderate effort)

120

149

178

Softball

150

186

222

Swimming

180

223

266

Tennis

210

260

311

Walking (4 mph, or 15 minutes per mile)

135

167

200