A Simple Guide to Getting and Staying Fit in the City

Health and fitness columnist Brad Stulberg shares his tips on how to ensure that an active life and city life are not mutually exclusive

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   Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I’m not writing about health and human performance, I’m out doing my best to live that lifestyle. But it’s not always easy to practice what I preach, especially because I’ve never lived in a mountain town. I have more or less exclusively lived in a city: I’m currently in Oakland, California, and before that, in San Francisco and Washington, DC. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a few simple tricks when it comes to getting and staying fit in an urban environment. Here are my favorites.


When Searching for a Gym, Prioritize Convenience

Getting around the city can be a pain in the ass. Trains get canceled, buses run late, and parking is often impossible. Being able to access your gym quickly and without worrying about transportation is huge. Find a gym near you—ideally within walking distance—even if it means sacrificing a little quality or paying a bit more. The easier it is to get to your gym, the more likely you are to use it. Alternatively, consider setting up your own at-home gym.

Find the Nearest Whole Foods (or Other Natural Grocer)

Yes, I know—the groceries are expensive, but the premade food (like the salad and hot bar) at Whole Foods is a bargain and quick, with plenty of fresh, healthy options. Very rarely can you eat at a restaurant in a big city for under $10 and nail nutrient requirements, but you can almost always do so at a place like Whole Foods. It’s not that you should never indulge in great eats, but consider making Whole Foods one of your go-to spots for quick meals.

Surround Yourself with Fit Friends

There’s an old saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Turns out, it’s mostly true. A large and growing body of behavioral science research shows that motivation (or lack thereof) is contagious. One study, “Is Poor Fitness Contagious? Evidence from Randomly Assigned Friends,” found that up to 70 percent of your fitness level may be explained by the people you hang out with.

Shrink the city by finding others who share your fitness goals and embrace a similar lifestyle. Opportunities to do so are virtually endless: most running and bike shops offer group runs and rides. There are masters swimming programs and groups like the November Project, which are built on community. And, of course, there’s the web, where sport-specific forums and websites like Meetup and Fitt make it easier than ever to find training partners who favor a go-to-bed-early lifestyle.

Work at Sleep

Sleep is one of the most productive things you can do for your general health and fitness. Studies out of Stanford University showed that the more varsity athletes slept, the better they performed. This is because hormones that make you bigger, faster, and stronger—like HGH and testosterone—are released during deep sleep. Other research shows that sleep also makes you mentally sharper and replenishes your willpower, both critical to nailing key workouts.

Sleeping well as a city dweller is often a challenge, whether because of the constant noise or the temptation to indulge in a 24/7 lifestyle. Things like reducing screen time within two hours of going to bed, cutting out caffeine in the afternoon, passing on that second (or third) alcoholic drink at dinner, using earplugs, and, if you can afford them, blackout blinds, will all help insulate you from the city when you need some rest.

Embrace Active Transportation

If possible, walk, run, or ride to work and errands. Doing so is cheaper and less of a hassle than other modes of city transit, but most important, it ensures that you get in at least some physical activity every day. Not to mention, research shows that active transportation on the way to the office could improve your mental performance when you arrive.

Hit the Trails

Find at least one day every week when you can leave the city for nature. (Here are some of our favorites for you New Yorkers, Chicagoans, and Angelenos.) The benefits of exercising in natural environments are immense, ranging from reduced anxiety to decreased inflammation. As I’ve written before, even though driving 45 minutes to get to a trailhead or park may seem like a hassle, the benefits are well worth it. Trust us, you’ll feel more refreshed and rejuvenated than if you ran that same ten-block loop.

Filed To: Fitness, Nutrition, Wellness
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