Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves

By Philip Brewer on 31 July 2015 0 comments

I belonged to a fitness center for most of 20 years. It was expensive (even with the corporate discount I got through my employer), but I scarcely regret the money. What I regret was the time I wasted trying to get fit that way.

The Modern Fitness Center

There have been gymnasiums going back to the ancient Greeks, but the modern fitness center was invented in the 1970s.

It was, to a considerable extent, the creation of a single man: Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus machines. That invention, together with a couple of business practices that he championed, completely changed the economics of the fitness center business.

Before, a fitness center owner need to hire skilled trainers. Otherwise, clients wouldn't know where to start (and if they tried to just wing it, would probably hurt themselves). But with a few hours of training, anyone could teach someone how to use a Nautilus machine.

All by itself, that made fitness centers a highly profitable business. It didn't just greatly reduce the cost of staff; it also made it possible to cram a fitness center into a narrow strip-mall storefront (because you no longer needed the large spaces required by free weights, jump ropes, medicine balls, Indian clubs, etc.). On top of that, another of Jones's strategies — the notion that you should do one set to muscle failure, rather than doing multiple sets — increased the rate at which members ran through their workouts and departed, making it possible to sell more memberships.

Which is all fine, except...

Exercise Isn't Movement

Most people exercise, or at least mean to. But really, exercising is a strange thing to do. After all, animals don't exercise. Animals move. People move, too — they just don't move enough, because they're stuck sitting behind a desk for hours a day, stuck sitting while commuting to and from their desk, and very often sitting during many of their other activities as well — reading, watching TV, eating meals.

Exercise is something people invented as a way to fill that gap — it's an attempt to cover the bases very efficiently, so as to to fit a week's worth of movement into just a few hours.

But trying to replace movement with exercise is simply never going to work. No matter how efficient you (and your fitness center) are, you simply can't get a week's worth of movement in a few hours. What you need — what your body needs — is to move more all day, and that movement needs to be much more diverse than what you've probably been getting.

For all the nitty-gritty details on why exercise is no substitute for movement, and the physiology of how and why spending hours a day in the same few postures is bad for your body, the best resource I've found is biomechanist Katy Bowman. Her blog Katy Says has five years worth of careful explanations of how your body adapts to the way you use it, and why the adaptations to sitting for 10 hours a day can be reasonably expected to produce all sorts of problems. She also has a great podcast, and has written several books on the topic. (I suggest starting with Move Your DNA.)

Fit More Movement Into Your Day

Most people have spent years figuring out how to minimize movement — in the name of efficiency, but also because people are lazy. From that perspective, the whole idea of moving more on purpose may seem oddly backward.

For example, your office, kitchen, or shop has probably been carefully arranged with an eye toward putting everything you need at hand when and where you need it, and what I'm suggesting amounts to telling you to undo all of that. But the fact is, minimizing movement does all kinds of harm. What you want is almost the opposite: That you fill your day with natural movement.

If your goal is to fill your day with movement, the standard advice — park further away so you can walk, take the stairs instead of the elevator — is pretty minimalist. It will take more than that.

Since I don't know what your day looks like, I can only offer general suggestions, but here's a bunch of ideas.

More Movement for Desk Workers

The first thing to do is to just mix up your sitting position a bit. With a few boxes of different heights, you can improvise workspaces at the right height for sitting differently:

  • Sit on the floor with one leg tucked (and then the other, and then with both legs stretched out, and then with your legs crossed).
  • Kneel on one knee (and then the other)
  • Kneel on both knees
  • Squat
  • Sit on boxes or stools of various heights

Even if you mix it up, you shouldn't spend all day sitting. Maybe a standing desk (or even a treadmill desk) would be in order, but before resorting to that, try to fit in some standing and walking in simpler ways:

  • If you need to read a document but don't need to type, try angling your screen so you can read while standing at your regular desk.
  • Similarly, you can lie down on the floor to read a document, much as you almost certainly did as a teenager.
  • Take a laptop to the break room, put it on a countertop, and stand while answering email.
  • On days it's not too windy, take conference calls while walking outdoors.

I suppose some of those postures would appall an expert in ergonomics, but that's okay. Ergonomics is not the science of keeping you healthy; ergonomics is the science of keeping you at your desk as long as possible. If you want to be healthy, you need to move more. (You don't need to find the posture that lets you sit as long as possible.)

More Movement for Everybody Else

Add movement everywhere.

Something like a FitBit or an Apple watch or a phone running Google Fit is useful, mainly to remind you that all the short bits of movement — walking to the bathroom or to your boss's office or to a colleague's cubicle — all count.

Unless a medical condition like a joint replacement makes it unsafe, regain the ability to squat. If you can squat on your heels (the way everybody did every day before the invention of the chair), you can put that capability to good use every day. It's a good position for working, for cleaning, for getting things off low shelves, for picking things up off the floor, for weeding your garden.

Keep an eye out for things to hang from — bars, branches, etc. If you can't support your full bodyweight, just bend your knees or lean back and use your arms to support some of your weight, and gradually increase it. The ability to hang by your hands is useful in all sorts of ways besides saving your life if you find yourself unexpectedly in a scene from an action movie.


If you've been exercising, you've probably already got some specific movements in mind. Even if you haven't been, you've surely seen some lists of tips for fitting more exercise into your day — lists that almost always begin with walking.

Walking is great — it's arguably the definitional movement for human beings — and I'll get to it, but I wanted to point out some movements that are even more fundamental than walking. My list of natural movements starts with four that you almost certainly did before you even took your first step: Roll, crawl, squat, and stand.

1. Roll

Lie down on your stomach and (preferably without pushing into the floor with your hands or feet) roll over onto your back. Then (either continuing on the same way or reversing) roll back to your stomach. This will work your core, and remind your vestibular system of a whole range of possibilities that you otherwise scarcely experience except when you're asleep.

2. Crawl

Rediscover how to crawl, both on your hands and knees and your hands and feet. Once you can go forward for more than a few yards, expand your range to include crawling backward and crawling sideways. Once you have those covered, add in supine crawling, where you crawl on your hands and feet while facing upward. (That last seems like an odd posture on flat ground, but try going down a steep incline, especially one where the surface is loose or slippery, and it will instantly seem like an entirely sensible way to move.)

3. Squat

Squat down as low as you can without bringing your heels off the floor, then stand back up. Most people who've spent years sitting in chairs for a large fraction of the day can't squat very low, but the strength and flexibility will return surprisingly quickly if you spend a few minutes each day squatting.

4. Stand

The value of standing as an alternative to sitting burst into the public consciousness a few years ago, with many people switching to standing desks. Of course, filling your day with just standing is as bad for you as filling your day with just sitting — the point is to move, not to find a different static position. Still, if you always sit and never stand, standing more is a great idea.

5. Walk

Now we get to walking. Walking is the best. Walk as much as you can.

6. Run

Running is a popular form of exercise, although too many people use it as a way to cram their minimum daily requirement of aerobic exercise into the shortest time possible. Abandon that idea. Instead, making running one piece of your movement diet. Run when it's useful — when you want to get somewhere on foot in a hurry. Run when it's fun — when you feel like running. If you're running that much, you're probably running enough.

7. Climb

After walking, climbing stairs is a key recommendation for people trying to fit exercise into their day. Climbing stairs is great, but there are so many other things to climb! I suggest you climb them all: Climb hills. Climb ramps. Climb ladders. Climb playground equipment. Climb trees. Climb ropes. Climb boulders. Climb walls. Climb mountains.

8. Balance

Improving your balance is a key way to reduce injuries from falling. Practice standing on one leg. Practice walking on something narrow — a fallen log, a curb, a rail. If you're not ready for something more challenging, try walking along a painted parking lot line. Once that's easy, lay a 2x4 on the ground and walk along that.

9. Lift and Carry

There are many opportunities to fit lifting and carrying into your day. Instead of the grocery cart, get a grocery basket. Carry your groceries in, carry your trash out, carry your luggage, move furniture. Developing the strength and skills to lift and carry actual things — landscaping rocks, bundles of firewood — as opposed to just the strength and skills to lift a barbell or dumbbell — will stand you in good stead in all sorts of real-world situations.

10. Throw and Catch

You can throw little things like balls and you can throw larger things like sandbags or logs. Besides roundish things, you can throw non-round things like sticks (both cross-wise, so someone can catch it, and lengthwise like a javelin). Throw a frisbee with friends. If you don't have anybody to play catch with, get a rubber ball and bounce it off a wall.

11. Jump

You can jump down, you can jump up, and you can jump across. All are useful sorts of movement that are well worth rediscovering. In particular, jumping down just a little farther than you can step down is easy and very practical. Start by jumping down a distance of just one or two steps, and once that's easy, try jumping down three or four. Redevelop the capacity to jump down, and you can gain all sorts of opportunities for efficiencies in terms of getting from point A to point B — enough to replace some of the efficiencies you gave up as way to increase your opportunities for movement.

A good place to start for basic information on executing natural movements is MovNat. Created by Erwan Le Corre, MovNat advocates for and teaches natural movement. Just because movements are natural doesn't mean that you don't have to learn them and then practice correct form, and MovNat has generously provided a vast YouTube library with literally hundreds of short videos showing natural movements such as I listed above.

I'd suggest, though, starting with The Workout the World Forgot, simply because it's a beautiful visualization of natural movement.

Movement: The Natural Alternative to Exercise

Fitness centers aren't evil, of course. It's just that their whole focus is helping you exercise, and exercise is not what you need.

Oh, it's possible to get fit with exercise, and some people certainly make a valiant effort, coming up with workout plans that aim for the right mix of walking, running, cycling, lifting, yoga, and martial arts training.

My experience is that it's really hard. It takes a lot of time to get enough exercise, if you spend most of the rest of your day sitting still, and people come up with all sorts of tricks for fitting in their exercise. They get up early to go to the gym. They squeeze a workout into their lunch break. They put on reflective gear so they can go for a run after dark.

But as long as your exercise is a separate thing, there's never going to be enough of it. Unless you're independently wealthy, or you're a movie star or a fitness model and being fit is your job, there simply aren't enough hours in the day.

The solution is to quit exercising and start moving.

Everything you do has the potential for movement. Take advantage of that potential. Fill your day with movement. Then you'll be fit. And going to the gym to exercise will seem like a weird idea. Why exercise when you can move?

What are you doing to fit more movement into your life?

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Regular lunch walks and walking meetings help fit movement into an otherwise office environment.