“The ‘drawing-in maneuver’ is a great exercise to engage the innermost core muscles, called the transverse abdominis,” says Zetlin. And it also happens to be easy to do whether you’re sitting in traffic or wedged into coach. Sit straight up and take a breath, making sure your glutes and core are engaged. Breathe out through your nose while drawing your abdominals up and in, so that it feels like your bellybutton is touching your spine. Hold this for twenty seconds while continuing to breathe through your nose, then release. Do three sets with a few seconds rest in between.
“Isometric alternating bicep curls are a great exercise to build stability in your shoulders, forearms, and biceps,” says Zetlin. To do this while sitting, you’ll need to bring two small dumbbells in your carry-on. “Hold both dumbbells with your palms up at your hip-level and curl one dumbbell upward to your chest,” he says. While doing 12 reps with one dumbbell, you’ll hold the other stationary; then switch for 12 reps on the other side. Do three sets, but “be sure to keep your elbows close to your body with your wrists not falling downward,” he adds.
“Marching is a great cardiovascular exercise to engage every muscle below your pelvis while working your core,” says Zetlin. “Begin by crossing your arms comfortably across your chest. Next, bend one knee and bring it up higher than 90 degrees while your other foot is on the floor. Alternate your legs as if marching and try to maintain a fast pace. Attempt three sets of 30 to 50 repetitions for a great challenge.”
If you’re waiting in line for the bathroom or otherwise have plenty of aisle space on your plane or train, you can do lunges to stretch your hip flexors and lower back. “Stretching these muscles is very important due to the long hours of sitting,” Zetlin says. If you want to add some resistance, try using your laptop bag or briefcase as a weight.
Try this one when the seatbelt sign is off. “Standing on one leg engages the core and will create better balance,” says Zetlin, and it also stretches and strengthens your legs. “To perform, be sure to keep one foot firmly on the floor while your other foot is a few inches off the floor. If this is too challenging, you may hold onto an aisle seat for stability.” Hold for 20 seconds and do three reps on each side.
Seated knee lifts can be a challenging workout for your abs and hip flexors. Sit towards the front of your seat with your knees pressed together and your back straight, and grip the front of the chair. Lift your legs toward your chest, keeping your core engaged and your knees locked in a 90-degree angle—try not to slouch. Lower your legs, but don’t touch the floor until you’ve finished a set. Do three sets of 15 to 20 reps for a real burn.
“This row will engage your rhomboids and scapula,” says Zetlin. “Those are muscles that are located in the middle of your back and will assist in better posture from sitting long hours while traveling.” For this exercise, you’ll again need two small dumbbells and a little space in front of you. To do it, lean forward with your back arched and hold the weights at your sides, palms down. “Next, row upward underneath your chest muscles,” he says. “Be sure to fully extend your elbows downward with each repetition for optimal range of motion. Three sets of eight repetitions would be a terrific goal.”
If you brought even one dumbbell, this tried and true exercise will bulk up your triceps no matter where you are. Sit towards the front of your seat and lean forward slightly to create some room behind you. Grip one end of the dumbbell with both hands and hold it behind your head with your elbows bent and close to your ears—make sure they’re not poking out so you don’t whack your neighbor. Straighten your arms vertically while keeping your elbows in position, and then lower again. Do three sets of 20 reps.
This simple isometric exercise is harder than it looks, and it seriously works out your quads. Since it requires a wall, it’s best done at a pit stop or in the airport/train station. All you need to do is squat with your back and head firmly pressed against a wall and hold it for as long as you can—no more than a minute. Your knees should be shoulder-width apart and bent at a 90-degree angle. Do three reps for a solid burn.
Chances are your lower legs and feet aren’t doing a whole lot when you’re in transit. One way to work those muscles is by doing calf and toe raises, which are just what they sound like. For a calf raise, keep the balls of your feet on the ground and lift your heels. You can lean on your knees or put your carry-on in your lap for extra resistance. Do 20 to 30 quick reps and switch to toe raises. For a toe raise, simply keep your heels planted and lift your toes in the same rapid succession. This will strengthen your ankle and shin muscles. Do two or three sets.
Just because you’re sitting for hours doesn’t mean you can’t do a little toning. Work your inner thighs with this isometric exercise, which is usually done with a small exercise ball. If you don’t have one handy (and you probably don’t), simply place your fist, or even your briefcase, between your knees and squeeze your thighs together for 30 seconds. Three or four reps is plenty.
This one is for the exit row, an inward facing seat on a train, or the airport. Sitting forward in the seat and gripping the front of the chair for balance, try to make your back and legs into as straight a line as possible, and hold it for as long as you can. Aim for about 30 seconds, take a breather, and do two more reps for a good workout of your core, quads, and lower back.