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)
ahisgett - Flickr
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis