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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser