In college, I knew a girl who did a lot of her studying at the gym. She’d bring a textbook and prop it up on the treadmill, and somehow it worked for her. Anytime I tried it, I’d have a bouncing book, a terrible workout, and not be able to report back a single word I’d read.
I still don’t know exactly how she did it, but I’ve since developed a habit that feels surprisingly similar. Most mornings, I hop onto a spin bike for some easy cardio. I often spend a good chunk of my workout scrolling through my phone. I’m texting friends, reading articles, and planning my day. My legs are moving, but so is my brain.
Now, to be clear: This isn’t the only exercise I do. (I’ve got my lifting workouts, my kettlebell collection, my high-intensity intervals…you get the idea.) But there’s definite value to doing some exercise that doesn’t feel like work.
Walking is the classic example, right? It’s standard health advice to tell people to park in the farthest parking spot, to go for a walk after dinner, to “get your steps in.” Errands and neighborhood strolls aren’t the same thing as marathon training, but walking is definitely physical activity and in most cases it counts as light cardio. So why not apply this way of thinking to other kinds of exercise, too?
A bike is a great place to start. When I first started dragging myself to the gym in the early mornings (before the pandemic, before my home gym) I would begin each session in the gentlest way possible. I would go to the rows of exercise bikes and find a recumbent one, the kind with a seat that has a back. I would slouch in that seat, churn the pedals, and try to wake up. Within five or 10 minutes, it usually worked, and I’d hop off and get started with my real workout.
Steph Auteri writes in Book Riot about how to exercise while reading, which at first made my think of my classmate on the treadmill, but she takes it another direction. While you’re reading, it turns out you can stretch and center yourself in a variety of yoga poses. She reads in butterfly pose, in a pancake stretch, in a seated twist, and even in a supported bridge pose. Are these moves the best most intense exercise a person can do? No, but they sure beat sitting around not exercising.
I find I get a lot more exercise in my day when some of the exercise mentally “doesn’t count.” An hour of goofing off on the bike, with my heart rate in zone 1 or 2, constitutes a perfect active rest day. It’s where you’ll find me most Sunday mornings. On the weekdays, ten minutes of reading or texting on my phone while cycling still isn’t a “Real Workout” and so I have no hesitation about it, no psyching myself up to fucking crush it. After those ten minutes, I’m usually warmed up enough that I feel ready to put the phone away and crank up the intensity, which is another benefit of lazy exercise: It makes the non-lazy kind a lot more accessible.
And the funny thing is, if you think like an athlete, you probably need more lazy exercise in your life. Most of your running volume, if you are a runner, should be done at a jog so easy it almost feels like a joke. You might be able to get that in on the treadmill, or perhaps an incline treadmill walk or a session on the elliptical is more your speed.
So figure out where you can add some lazy exercise in your life. Read while you do it, text your friends, or put on a podcast or audiobook that wouldn’t be compatible with a hardcore workout. And see if you don’t finish the week having done more exercise than you otherwise would have.