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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood