The commuter's guide to calisthenics on the go

You may be doing more exercise than you think during your daily journey into work.

At some point at the end of the week or beginning of the month, we all resolve to improve our fitness regime. For those who begin work early or have to commute, we endeavour to exercise in the morning so that the eight or ten hours we spend sat in front of computers don’t take their toll on our bodies. To endeavour is one thing, to execute is another. Exercise in the evening you say? When you reach home at 8pm and have things like laundry, cooking and tidying to do in the three hours before you have to sleep again this isn’t always possible. Sleep, for many, takes precedence over the aforementioned measures of self-improvement. This morning, I saw the journey from a different perspective - as it turns out, commuting can be quite an athletic act, requiring co-ordination of the mind, muscles and mobile phone clock. The following is based on my daily commute into London.

Reluctantly wake up at 6.45 am. You’re still a little sleep-deprived from the previous few weeks of work, and sleeping late last night doesn’t help. Have another 15 minutes in bed; you only need to leave the house at 8am.

It’s 7.30 - only half an hour to get dressed, eat breakfast and make a sandwich for lunch. Spring forth to the bathroom, grab your toothbrush and get brushing whilst simultaneously running the shower to eliminate the first 30 seconds of cold water (that would otherwise deliver a cruel slap to the face). Hop out and begin your warm-up – the “hot out of the shower dance” – a strange wriggle-walk triggered involuntarily by the horrific temperature change experienced on exiting the shower. Jump into your clothes (add a few extra minutes of indecision if you didn’t have them ready last night.) Oh dear, you still have "bed head" and only 17 minutes to eat and make lunch. Move it!

Sartorial solutions gained, time for “The Sandwich Sprint”. Grab bread and sandwich fillings from the fridge, slap both sides together and shove into a box. Stuff this in your bag/ dedicated lunch bag and run this to the front door, making sure you power off on the balls of your feet to avoid heel strike induced injuries. Right, breakfast … cereal again. Lunge towards the draining board and grab your bowl, decant cereal and milk. Don’t forget a quick sniff test before you’re unpleasantly surprised by a mouthful of sour milk and cereal. With just under a minute to spare from munching on breakfast, perform “The Breakfast Bowl Bleep Test.” Plonk your bowl next to the sink and run to the front door to catch to your lift the train station.  Don’t forget keys, wallet, train pass and "lovingly" prepared lunch.  Areas worked: soleus, gastrocnemius, quadriceps, core muscles.

The journey begins.

You’ve just reached the station at 8.09am, the  train to London Paddington has just pulled in; you have 45 seconds to board it. Get ready for “Commuter Cardio and Calisthenics Part One” in 3-2-1… GO!

Quickly seek out the 10-inch gutter space on the left hand side of the corridor. Streamlining your profile is key; shoulders back, stomach in, all bags in front of you. Slip through the mass of professionals and school goers. Nimbly jog up two flights of stairs to the platform. Lean forward to eliminate bounce and keep on the balls of your feet for maximum speed and accuracy climbing each step. Triple Jump onto the train, and peer into the carriage to spot a window seat occupied by a "considerate" commuter’s handbags. Spotted one? Lucky you! Scurry down the narrow aisle, smile sweetly at the commuter. More often than not, they’ll wearily “bum-shuffle” inwards, giving you the aisle seat. Such is the power of non-verbal communication! Sit down with your back straight and pull in your stomach muscles, commuting does not condone bad posture. Use the 40 minute journey to replenish oxygen supplies and read some news. Areas worked: Quadriceps, pectorals, deltoids, core muscles.

It’s now 8:50 and you’re at Paddington, caught in a mass of tired but wired commuters slurping the last of their morning beverages. Weave in and out of people to make it to the Bakerloo line’s ticket barriers in a manner similar to the Illinois Agility Test. There’s an added challenge, the people/cones are moving so proprioception is of paramount importance. Always look over your shoulder before changing direction, the last thing you want is to be knocked by a series of briefcase wielding wildebeests. Areas worked: Soleus, gastrocnemius, quadriceps, gluteus maximus.

Descend the escalators, twisting your torso and keeping your knees bent to balance. Bags should be held close to the abdominals functioning as an elbow shield and as kettle bells. Keep close to the inner side of the platform to reach a less crowded square foot of platform. If unable to board the first train, angrily clench your “glutes” until the next tube arrives. Areas worked: Iliopsoas (used to lift your legs up and down), quadriceps, gluteus maximus, pectorals, deltoids, core muscles.

Now begins Commuter Calisthenics Part Two– “Tube Surfing”– testing one’s ability to overcome the incessant jerks and jolts courtesy of the tube driver. Squeeze onto the crowded carriage, face the doors and assume an L-shaped stance, feet hips-width apart. Keep your knees bent, core engaged, and arms forcibly pinned to your sides. To aid balance, focus on interchanges marked out on tube maps, or on more amusing things like protruding nose hairs if you’re stuck in the middle of the carriage, uncomfortably close to the next person. Areas worked: Core muscles, gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, quadriceps.

Twenty minutes of simulated surfing later, it’s time to change tube lines and perform a super set of lunges and kettle bell training- “Line Change Lunges!” Ascend the escalator and single flight of stairs, lean forward and use your bags as kettle bells. Don’t forget to deeply inhale plenty of stagnant tunnel air with every second stride or you may end up with a stitch! Board and prepare for round two of “Tube Surfing”- this train delivers Richter-Scale worthy rattles whilst leaving and pulling into stations, and occasionally moves in the opposite direction. “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform” as you leap off and weave your way to the exit.

Exit in sight, begin “Light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel Lunges.” Scale two or three steps at a time as you climb three flights of stairs to the exit. Allow your glutes, calves, and quads the full range of motion to ensure a consistent rhythm till you reach the top. Areas worked: Quadriceps, gluteus maximus, soleus and gastrocnemius, core muscles, pectorals, biceps.

Pass through the ticket barriers. If someone cuts in front of you, add an extra three glute clenches, and head towards the subway to begin “Commuter’s Cool Down”. Descend the stairs, keeping each step light. Mind the tramp poo on the bottom two steps! Briskly walk through the dank corridor and head upstairs on the balls of your feet. Ignore the inefficiently bouncing gait of the commuter in front .Good form is essential. Keep your swipe card handy as you purposefully stride towards the office building. Pass through the corridor and into the lift. Check your hair, straighten your trousers and take some deep breaths.

Arrive at your desk having burnt about 150- 200 calories in a total body work-out during your hour long commute. Plough through your day with boosted circulation and prepare for round two at 6.10pm

The images featured in this article are part of a photographic project on the theme of commuting.

Blackfriars station, 9.45 am (Photo: Surabhi Khanna)
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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses