How to be more active every day without trying

We like it when things are easy. If we can avoid spending time or effort on something, we generally will.

This is an evolutionary trait. At some point in human history, being efficient was vital to survival. Whoever could find enough food while expending the least amount of energy was the most likely to survive.

The problem is that these days, we don’t expend enough energy. On anything. We’ve gotten too good at gathering the necessities of life without moving at all. Luckily, there’s a way to use this trait to our advantage.

THE EASIEST OPTION OF ALL

The easiest decision to make is the one that’s made for you. That is, the default option.

While we like to think that every decision we make is thought out and deliberate, the truth is that many of our decisions are actually made by default. Every day most of us brush our same teeth, drink our same coffee, and go the same way to work. It takes extra effort to choose something different, so we don’t.

THE POWER OF A BETTER DEFAULT

For a powerful example of the effect of defaults, we can look at Rutgers University in New Jersey. When the school noticed their computer labs were going through paper at an alarming rate, they decided to make a change. They switched the default setting on all the printers on campus to print double-sided instead of single.

The results? They saved 7,391,065 sheets of paper in the first semester alone. By the end of the year, they saved the equivalent of 1,280 trees.

WHY THIS IS SO EFFECTIVE

In the absence of a strong preference, we tend to go with the default. The students didn’t really care if what they were printing was printed on both sides or only one, they just couldn’t be bothered to switch. So, when the default changed, so did their behaviour. They printed almost everything double-sided without even thinking. In fact, that’s exactly the point.

HOW THIS APPLIES TO PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

This example shows what’s possible when you change the default. The trick to applying this to your own life is to look at things you do every day without thinking and to see if there’s a way you could easily make your default option more active or less sedentary.

For instance, I’ve managed to make the stairs my default option when entering or exiting the subway. I never take the escalator and I never even think about it. I just naturally take the stairs, not because I am constantly choosing to be more active, or have boundless energy, but simply because it’s become my new default.

A lot of my coworkers bike to work every day in the warmer months. Again, not because they’re better at making active choices, but because they don’t have to think about it. They bike to work because it’s cheaper, faster and more fun than sitting on public transit. You can buy a one-month transit pass, or a good used bike that will last for years. When the temperature rises, biking becomes their default commuting option.

The list of possible defaults goes on and on. One of my coworkers lifts weights at lunch every day because it’s a reoccurring meeting in his schedule. Another always leaves her standing desk up when she goes home, so that when she arrives in the morning she starts her day standing. Another goes to yoga classes after work because she volunteers at the studio four hours a week to receive those free classes. A small group goes to spin class every Tuesday because no one wants to miss out.

Whether it’s your daily commute, your lunch hour routine, or what you do when you get home, the idea is to identify your habitual inactive time, and then replace it with a more active option. Doing so, in turn, creates an environment that naturally includes activity.

There’s no doubt that this will require some thought and effort—at first. You have to make a deliberate commitment to changing your default. But once you do, it gets easier and easier. And that’s the whole point.

Set a new default and you’ll be moving more, sitting less, and maybe even saving trees in no time!