The author, photographed via FaceTime, demonstrates the “bird-dog”. Photography: Andi Elloway

Bare-Minimum Moves for People With No Time to Exercise

If squeezing in a workout feels like a pipe dream, here’s a little something you can do instead

A notification just popped up on my phone’s lock screen from the app FitOn. “NEW Quarantine Workouts,” it said. “Gab Union and DWade will make you sweat, laugh all at the same time.”

“God, I love Gabrielle and Dwyane. That sounds so fun,” I thought. And then I picked up the baby I’d just finished nursing, changed her diaper, set her down on a blanket, loaded the dishwasher, and picked up my laptop to go back to work (I’m Elemental’s new executive editor, btw — hello!) for a few minutes before a toddler lost a dinosaur and needed my help finding it.

Among a certain set, there seems to be a renewed focus on fitness right now: Studios and apps are streaming countless classes every day, people are setting ambitious goals for their at-home workout routines, Jake Gyllenhaal is filming himself putting on a T-shirt while in a handstand. And when ~all of this~ started, I, too, got a tiny bit excited about having more time to exercise now that commuting from Brooklyn to Medium’s Manhattan offices wouldn’t be part of the equation. I got a new pair of running shoes. I downloaded FitOn!

Then reality set in. You’ve probably already read all those great pieces about how, as lucky as one may be to have a home and a job and not have to work in a hospital or a grocery store, it is still not easy to work full time and have small children living in your home and cook and clean all the things and take care of the cats and fix the broken appliances yourself. I’m not going to try to write my own version, because I don’t have time. And anyway, what I would do if I did have time is exercise.

Spending so much time staring at a computer or hunching over a baby means that much of my day is spent with the muscles on the front of my body contracting and the muscles on the back lengthening.

As it happens, though, in addition to being a full-time coronavirus editor, I am a certified personal trainer. I don’t usually train clients, but I do know a bit about fitness, have been fairly committed to exercising as an adult, and am pretty good at designing workouts.

So while hanging out on the app with DWade and Gab isn’t really in the cards for me at the moment, I can say that I’ve been fairly intentional about the movement I’ve been squeezing in during spare moments (baby in the Jumperoo, toddler in front of Sesame Street). My focus: The posterior chain, aka all the muscles on the back of the body. Why? Spending so much time staring at a computer, hunching over a baby, leaning over sinks and pots of pasta, and bending over to pick up toy dinosaurs means that much of my day is spent with the muscles on the front of my body contracting and the muscles on the back lengthening. Over time, those posterior muscles can become chronically overstretched and weakened, which has all kinds of unfortunate consequences for the way our bodies function and feel. Bad posture, aching necks and backs, stiff and clicky hips, even less optimal breathing: nothing good.

Someday I’ll find a way to fit in regular, complete, challenging workouts again (maybe?). But until then, here’s what I’m doing to counteract the hunch, keep my back happy, and at the very least, feel like I have enough power to conquer another day. It’s not everything — it’s not even a real workout, by most people’s definition — but right now, something is better than nothing. (And listen, sometimes nothing is okay, too.)

None of the exercises you’ll see below require equipment, although you’re welcome to use dumbbells, cans, or water (or wine) bottles where applicable to make things more challenging. (If you don’t have any of those things, just do more reps. These moves actually get tough pretty fast!) You can use a yoga mat if you haven’t had time to vacuum lately, but it’s not required. And you don’t even need to change into workout clothes if for some reason you are not already wearing leggings or sweatpants. Oh, and if you have a second to warm up first (jogging in place, doing some vinyasas) that’s great, but it’s also not a huge deal if you don’t. It’s not like you’re doing a bunch of clean and jerks or something.

You can also do this sequence as often as you like, although once a day, or even once every couple of days, is perfectly fine. Do each move once, repeat the series if you can, do it a third time if no one’s interrupted you yet. Don’t overthink it. Just do what you can, and wash your hands.

Is, Ts, and Ws

These moves help strengthen the stabilizing muscles around your shoulder blades, retraining them to stay back and down, which allows your chest to open and your neck to feel less strained. Performing them standing with your torso angled toward the floor also helps strengthen the erector spinae muscles that support your spine.

Is:

  • Begin standing with feet about hip-width apart.
  • Keep knees slightly bent. Engage your core (think about “zipping up” your ribs and pulling your belly button toward your spine) and hinge forward at the hips so that your upper body is angled toward the floor.
  • Keep your gaze slightly ahead of you to encourage your spine to remain neutral.
  • Keeping your core engaged, slowly bring your arms up alongside your head, thumbs facing up, so your whole upper body is in a straight line — engage the muscles around your shoulder blades for stability — then return your arms back down toward the floor.
  • Perform 10–20 reps, stopping when you feel your muscles fatigue to the point where you need a break.

Ts:

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent.
  • Engage your core and hinge forward at the hips, keeping gaze slightly ahead of you.
  • Keeping core engaged, reach your arms out to the sides, thumbs facing up, so your body forms a T position — feel your shoulder blades squeeze together — then return your arms down toward the floor.
  • Perform 10–20 reps.

Ws:

  • Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent.
  • Engage your core and hinge forward at the hips, keeping gaze slightly ahead of you.
  • Keeping core engaged, reach arms out into a Y shape with palms down.
  • Imagine your arms are between two panes of glass and bend your elbows, pulling them back and down until your arms are in a W shape.
  • Return to Y, then pull back into W again for 10–20 reps.

You don’t even need to change into workout clothes if for some reason you are not already wearing leggings or sweatpants.

Glute bridges

Bridges challenge your glutes and lower back and provide a gentle opening to the hip flexor muscles, which spend so much of the day contracting as we sit. The key to making bridges as effective as possible is to intentionally squeeze your glutes as you work (otherwise your quads may end up doing most of the work for you, and your butt, sadly, remains neglected). This is also a good time to work on your pelvic floor — you can engage it as you lift your hips and relax it as you lower.

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet hip-width apart.
  • Your heels should be a few inches in front of your fingers when you extend your arms.
  • Press into your feet, engage your core, and squeeze glutes to lift hips up, keeping shoulders and upper back on the floor.
  • Lower hips toward the mat slowly, allow your seat to gently tap the floor, then squeeze glutes to lift hips again.
  • Perform 10–20 reps. You can also try any or all of the below variations.

Variation one:

  • With hips lifted, squeeze your right glute, allowing the left to relax and dip/lower slightly.
  • Then switch, squeezing the left glute and relaxing the right.
  • Perform 10–20 squeezes on each side.

Variation two:

  • With hips lifted, scoot your left foot toward the middle, and lift your right leg into the air.
  • Lower and lift your hips with just your left foot on the floor.
  • Perform 5–10 reps, then switch legs.

Variation three:

  • With hips lifted, shimmy shoulders underneath you so you can clasp your hands together.
  • Hold the position and breathe deeply for 30–60 seconds.

Bird-dog

This move strengthens the postural muscles of the spine, and because it requires good balance, it challenges your core. Focus on a sense of lengthening as you lift to help stimulate the fascia, important connective tissue which becomes stiff when we’re sedentary, leading to discomfort.

  • Begin on all fours. Extend your right arm, resting your fingertips gently on the floor in front of you; at the same time, extend your left leg, resting your toes on the floor behind you.
  • Engage your core, find balance, and lift your right arm and left leg, feeling a long, lengthening stretch from your heel all the way through your body and to your pinky.
  • Raise and lower your arm and leg together for 10–15 reps, then switch to the left arm and right leg.

Donkey kicks

Donkey kicks are a simple way to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings, which become weak and overstretched when we’re inactive. If 20 reps aren’t enough for you, feel free to just keep going until you can’t maintain good form. You can also nestle a dumbbell or other weight behind your knee to make it more challenging, or try it with your leg extended instead of bent at the knee.

  • Begin on all fours. Engage your core and lift your right leg with the knee bent, raising your right heel toward the ceiling.
  • Lower your knee back to the ground.
  • Perform 10–20 reps, then switch sides.

Editor and writer. Past: Elemental, Real Simple, Refinery29, SELF. Certified personal trainer; prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist. Cat & person mom.

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