Is the exercise you're recording really 'exercise'?

Emma White - Nutritionist | 20 Jan, 2021

"I am keeping to my calorie allowance so why am I not losing weight faster" When I receive this question from a member, the first thing to look at is what they are recording in their Exercise Diary.

Sometimes I see activities like ironing, driving or even knitting logged. And while – as this blog will explain – such activities do use energy, they are not really the type of things you should be entering in your Exercise Diary. Instead they should be classed as 'incidental exercise'.

What is incidental exercise?

It is essentially low-moderate effort daily activities (unless you were sprinting for a bus!) like climbing the stairs, taking out the rubbish, and vacuuming the house. These activities do provide health and fitness benefits however the effects are at the lower end of the spectrum to 'traditional' exercise.

Think of it like this: 'incidental exercise' is the effect of movement during the course of a day that adds up to a worthwhile calorie burn contribution by the end, but it should compliment and maximise traditional exercise methods not replace them. It should not be seen as exercise in itself (or recorded in your Exercise Diary).

Be less efficient!

We always spend our time trying to do things in the most time efficient way, but by NOT being efficient you'll be burning more calories i.e. make separate trips up and down the stairs when tidying, don't pile it all at the bottom to be efficient with your efforts. You want to make your body move more and burn more calories. So park at the furthest end of the car park, don't take the escalator or lift and offer someone else a seat on the tube/bus/train and stand (as standing burns more calories than sitting!).

Types of incidental exercise

Walking more

Try getting off the bus a stop earlier or doing the school run on foot. Make taking the bus/car the exception rather than the rule for journeys under 2 miles

Interesting fact! If you were walking at a 2mph slow pace on the flat (i.e. taking the kids to school or getting off the bus a stop early) then you could burn 159 calories for the accumulative time of an hours walking. Add to that the strength benefit for your legs and benefits to your cardiovascular system, and you can see it is well worth doing.

Taking the stairs

Try and take the stairs rather than lifts/escalators. If you're using the car, don't always look for the closest space or one on the lowest floor – the higher up and further away you park, the further you have to walk there meaning more calories burned.

Interesting fact! Taking the stairs instantly creates an increased workload for the thighs, bum and core muscles as well as the heart and gives the metabolic rate a little boost – which spikes your calorie output as well!

Choosing active attractions

Instead of going to the cinema for two hours, visit the zoo for the same amount of time where you'll be walking around, or visit a stately home and gardens where you'll be walking without noticing.

Interesting fact! Standing burns more calories than sitting, and walking burns more than standing – so quite simply the more active the better! Walking around a zoo or stately home means you achieve a fantastic calorie output without even realising!

Days out with the kids

Whether they're the grand kids, your own children or friends of the family, by taking part in activities with children you'll be more likely to be on your feet i.e. playing football in the park with them.

Interesting fact! Walking/running and playing with your children to a moderate level can burn up to 254 calories an hour and if you were playing football and being really energetic in your 'play' then you could burn closer to 319 calories per hour. This together with an increased heart rate for improved heart heath and endurance combined with happy, smiling children is a win-win!

Hit the garden

Not only are there financial/health benefits to growing your own, gardening is great for exercise

Interesting fact! Gardening not only provides a strength workout (with relation to the more strenuous activities) but it combines the fresh air for the lungs, the sunlight for the benefits of Vitamin D and also just gets the body moving in ways we often don't do (hence the aches that can follow the next day!).Some calorie examples include:

Heavy digging 596 kcal/hour

Mowing the lawn 349 kcal/hour

Raking the Lawn 254 kcal/hour

Sawing wood 323 kcal/hour

Splitting logs 349 kcal/hour

Going the extra mile...

Try attaching ankle/wrist weights when you're walking to build muscles, skipping instead of walking through the park, or power walking instead of strolling.

Interesting fact! Increasing the effort/intensity of any activity means more calories and more demands on the body so ankle/wrist weights, or weighted backpacks when walking, skipping instead of walking etc are a great way to optimise benefits. Skipping creates an impact effect for the body which achieves the weight bearing and impact benefits for preventing osteoporosis – so a great option to intersperse with walking for variety, (this also relates to skipping using a skipping rope).

Making the most of your hidden free time.

If there's no time after work to exercise, how about making the most of your lunch hour by going for a walk or if you're catching up with someone on the phone (mobile), walk while you talk. Going to the supermarket? Use baskets rather than the trolleys to tone your arms. And the best bit? You can get fit while doing the housework!

Interesting fact! Multi-tasking your time and to-do list with a physical component is a great way of being efficient with your time but maximising your physical and mental wellbeing. Some research suggests walk and talk meetings can boost productivity as well as create a good environment for creativity. A significant feel good factor is optimised when you create your clean and tidy home space and feel like you've achieved a metabolic boost at the same time – cranking up some favourite music adds a nice motivating boost to the housework!

Some calorie burning examples include:

  • Vacuuming 152 kcal/hour
  • Ironing (a good workout for the upper body) 88 kcal/hour
  • Cleaning light-moderate effort 158 kcal/hour



Whether watching TV or sitting at a computer all day, you can burn calories by simply fidgeting!

Interesting fact! Fidgeting is essentially low level mini constant contractions of small groups of muscle fibres and any muscle fibre contraction (however small) burns calories. So fidget away, it all adds up!

So it just goes to show, we burn calories whatever we do (other than sitting on the sofa!) so get moving more, and you'll burn more calories. Still keep up your traditional exercise routine, but all this extra movement will burn some extra calories on top, and help you get to your weight loss goal. Hoovering never looked so appealing...

Nutritionist Emma White (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.

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