The "Back-to-School" Workout

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It’s fall, time to sharpen the number two pencils, pull the sweaters out of the closet, and — return to the office chair?

While the pull of sedentary life is certainly strong as the days get shorter and we get back to school and work routines, current research shows that the number of hours one spends sitting can correlate to poor health

If 20 minutes on the treadmill doesn’t appeal after a summer spent running around on the beach, you can always add physical activity into your work day by taking frequent walks and breaks, biking or walking to work, or finessing a tree pose at your stand-up desk.

hula-hoop-womanStill, there’s another approach to amping up your fall fitness routine that will appeal to adolescents of all ages: build your own recess. Taking time out of the workday for play can help us get stronger and more fit as well as providing a necessary mental break.

There’s a lot of functional fitness to be found in a playground-style workout. One-footed balancing, pushes, pulls, and runs are the basics of most child’s play and the building blocks for a strong and injury-proofed adult body. Climbing urban landscaping—stepping up onto park benches, balancing on decorative rocks, or taking a swing around a light pole with your tap shoes on, may not win you friends in the densest of city parks, but it does offer miniature challenges and great muscle-building opportunities—and it’s a lot more fun than jumping onto boxes at the gym. Crawling in its many variations, from the spider to the inchworm (just add the plank and downward dog to this) builds the shoulder and works the core, legs, and glutes. (Try it on stairs, both forward and back.) Juggling offers opportunities beyond just disposing of post-dated fruit; it also builds hand-eye coordination and entertains the officemates. Races—no need to elaborate on this one for the urban guerilla. You need to catch the bus on occasion, right?

If you’re lucky enough to have a child, when you visit the playground, try actively playing with them yourself rather than just watching them. Within reason, mimic their activities. (“Look, son, no hands!” ) Good spots to start are the new “climbing walls” on playgrounds and the old-school monkey bars. Take all your hard-won gym knowledge with you, though, and use the best form you can. If you can’t get a turn on the swing, give yourself a challenge and push someone else one-handed.

But you don’t need a playground or even a child to play like one. Here are a few starter games for two or more. Remember to take it slowly as you revisit some of these childhood pastimes with a trusted partner or friend. And play the way kids do: hard enough to make it competitive and fun, but with plenty of rest times between games for recovery.

couple-playingTag You may need a full posse to play freeze tag, TV tag, or ghost in the graveyard but for many variations of the game, all you need are two willing participants and the will to run, jump, and hide. The key to making it fun: boundaries and breaks. Pick a space small enough to encourage agility in your evasive actions, but big enough to allow both players to reach a full sprint. Come up with a time limit, say, 60 seconds, that encourages going “all out.” Hint: place a glove, sock, or scarf in a pocket or belt as a “flag” to grab. You’ll know you’re having much more fun than an interval workout on a track when you can’t stop laughing.

Tug of War Grab a sock, scarf, or simply one another’s arms to create a great resistance workout for your entire body. (No need for the $250 battle ropes.) Start slowly, measuring how much resistance you need to create a challenge but not topple one another over, for about 30 seconds, then take it up a notch and find a winner. Tug-of-war variations offer specialized workouts: try the plank position for an even greater core challenge, or one-footed for stability-building. Try a minimum “best out of three” and keep each session going with a little cooperative “cheating” (as in, give a little if your partner isn’t quite at your strength level) to get the most from game. Even if you, like me, “throw like a girl,” games of catch offer terrific chances for developing hand-eye coordination. Nearly every park you enter will have an abandoned tennis ball or errant baseball for you to use (dog slobber is an occupational hazard). First, throw at a distance of five yards or so, taking a step back with each successful catch. When that gets boring, move back together and try off-target throws, challenging each other’s range of motion and run-and-catch range. Try one-footed catching variations, too. Or find a wall and bounce a tennis or lacrosse ball against it while your partner gets the return. See who can catch the most in one minute.

"Sumo” Build a “ring” with whatever your have available—a jump rope, each of your jackets, backpacks, or purses—and enter it for a few rounds of pseudo-Sumo. First try getting on all fours, and see who can push the other outside the ring. Another variation: one footed pushes, no arm pushes, back-to-back pushes. Certainly not advisable for a first date or the most public of parks unless you’re prepared to have onlookers, fans, or a police escort away from the ring, but solid fun for a backyard.

Game on asphalt
You don’t need chalk to build your own sidewalk puzzle to hop through, just pick up a pebble or penny and make your own sidewalk hopscotch game. Simply throw the pebble, jump over it, jump three more sidewalk squares, turn and pick the penny up on the way back. Use your best single-leg deadlift form. Variation, drop 15 pennies, pick them up one at a time. Switch legs; repeat.

Follow the leader Put it all together with a game of “follow the leader.” Give the leader a head start (a quarter-block or 10-yards? You decide.) Do what they do. Leader: find stairs to crawl, landscaping to jump or balance on, places to pick up the pace or drop into a squat, pushup, or plank. Build challenges for your partner.

Remember when recess was the best part of your day?

Always consult with your healthcare professional before starting a new health or exercise regime.

Susie Gerhard is a play-based fitness trainer and soccer coach, as well as a mother and writer-editor living in San Francisco.


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