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Cartwheels are cool, but stretching the wrists can be mind-numbingly boring. Balancing yourself on rock faces while climbing is exciting, but standing on one leg in your living room with your eyes closed seems like a terribly tedious task.

The truth is, you can’t get to the first without trudging through the second. Exercise and fitness, like any acquired skill, happens in stages, through small steps. A no-nonsense fundamental of fitness is that no one ever died of boredom. So, sweat the small stuff. Do it smartly. It’s the only way you’ll get to the big, cool things you want to do—and do them safely.

You don’t really need any gear for this, but if there is one piece of equipment we would make an exception for, it’s the barbell. But even this can be substituted: with a pair of dumbbells, a medicine ball, even water bottles.

We spoke to fitness experts across disciplines, from yoga to strength-trainers and clinical nutritionists, on their top tips for workouts, and food and lifestyle choices that really work.

The one perfect exercise

“If there was only one exercise you could do and nothing else, do the pull-up," says Olympic medal-winning boxer M.C. Mary Kom. “It makes you very strong in your back, arms, shoulders and core." It really is a perfect exercise. It uses your body weight to maximum effect, putting your upper body through the kind of strenuous muscular engagement that you get from compound lifts. And it forces your core to tighten as much as it can, making it rock solid if you do pull-ups regularly. It’s also a great calorie-burner because of the cardio-respiratory effort required.

Mary Kom can do hundreds of these in a day, but here’s what keeps most of us from doing a pull-up: When you try it for the first time, it seems almost impossible.

Do pull-ups.
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Do pull-ups.

—Hang passively from a bar. Let your muscles get used to this. Maintain a slight bend in your elbow. Locking your elbow puts the burden of your weight on the ligaments and tendons of the arms instead of the muscles. This little bend on the elbow, says Mary Kom, is important to maintain throughout the exercise.

“Tighten your core and try not to let your body swing," she says. “This will immediately start strengthening the core and teach your body how to maintain the right posture for the pull-up."

—Turn this into an “active hang" by pulling up ever so slightly, engaging the latissimus dorsi (lats), or the muscle running down the side from the armpit to the waist. Again, try to control the swing

—Do the reverse pull-up. Use support (something to give you height) and jump to the pull-up position on the bar. Slowly come down. This strengthens all the muscles you need to engage for the pull-up

—Get someone to give you external support as you pull up. Ask them to just hold the sides of your waist with the fingertips and give you a slight push while you try to pull yourself up. It is amazing how quickly you will progress to a full pull-up with just this little help

—Most people, by default, try to use their biceps to do the pull-up. The focus should be on the much bigger lats. Ask your partner to put a finger on your lats while you do the pull-up. This will help you feel the muscle and engage it

—When you get to one full pull-up, hold the top position for 10 seconds, then lower yourself slowly. “Don’t try too many," says Mary Kom. “Better to do one or two properly and slowly than to try and do a third when you can barely pull yourself up."

Just stand up

The document files are stacked on the lowest shelf. A top across two drawers serves as work desk No.1: This is where the phone sits, along with a charging cable and a glass of water. There’s no chair in sight. There are more shelves stacked with books, and in their midst, on the same level as the eyes, a small cove with a MacBook computer. This is celebrity fitness trainer Ramona Braganza’s “home-made" standing workstation.

“If I were to give one piece of no-nonsense exercise advice, it would be to just stand up," says Braganza, author of Feel Fit, Look Fantastic In 3-2-1. Braganza, who has trained actors like Jessica Alba, gives a long list of reasons why a stand-up desk works:

—Standing raises the heart rate, burning calories and improving blood flow

—It shapes and tones muscles

—It improves posture, reduces back pain

—It increases blood flow and charges up the metabolism.

Not convinced yet? Braganza cites UK-based sports medicine consultant Mike Loosemore’s claim that standing 3 hours a day, five days a week, is as effective as running 10 marathons a year. Yes, 10 marathons.

No time for exercise?

More London bus drivers were dying of heart disease than conductors: This finding helped Jeremy Morris, the UK-based epidemiologist regarded as the father of modern exercise science, establish a link between an active lifestyle and longevity 60 years ago. The conductors were going up and down the stairs in the double-deckers and were on their feet; the drivers necessarily spent their day sitting behind the wheel.

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Being active doesn’t require you to block 60-90 minutes for exercise daily. It needs a lifestyle change. It requires that you become mindful.

There are some ridiculously easy tips: If your office is on the 17th floor and you can’t imagine hauling yourself all the way up there, climb up one or two floors and take a lift the rest of the way. Every so often, look away from your terminal, get up from your desk, twist from the waist while sitting in your chair to stretch the back, look side-to-side to relieve the tension in your neck. Walk every day.

Why strength-training

There is actual merit—not just machismo—in strength-training and in progressively moving to higher weights, provided you do it right.

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Do deadlifts.

Ranadeep Moitra, a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America who writes for Mint, says resistance training—lifting free weights—can improve the health of the endocrine system, and keep problems like osteoporosis, and back, neck and knee pain at bay by strengthening tissues and muscles.

An exercise quickie, in the office

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Do push-ups. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

—Sit in your chair and extend the legs, opening them out at the knee. This shortens the quadriceps in the front of the leg and lengthens the hamstrings, or the muscles in the back of the thigh—just the opposite of what happens when you are sitting normally. It also engages your knee and keeps it limber, and your core gets a tiny push to keep you balanced

—Use your chair to do a push-up. Use the back for an easy option, and arm rests for the more difficult workout

—Use half-litre water bottles to do bicep curls and overhead lifts: Raise both arms up over the head, holding a water bottle for what is called “overload", or extra weight, in exercise-speak. Gently bend the elbows to drop the hands towards your back. Keep the arms close to your ears throughout.

Progress, slowly

If you’re not able to stand on one leg for any length of time because your ankles are weak, then don’t do this ankle-stability exercise yet. Kamal Chhikara says there is a hierarchy of movement to get the “full range of motion in the joints"—being able, in other words, to fully flex and extend the joint.

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The next step in making the knees and ankles stronger: Get in the Indian squat. Turn one knee out slightly so the foot is resting on its outer edge. Bring the foot back to rest flat on the ground. Now let this knee drop inward. Repeat on the other side. Try doing this 5-10 times on each side, and increase the repetitions as you get more comfortable with this movement. You’ll notice that you’ll be able to sit in the Indian squat longer and be able to move the knee farther—both in and out—as you progress.

Don’t diet

“Throw away your diet books," recommends Ranadeep Moitra. He explains that calorie-restricting diets—sedentary men need up to 2,400, and women around 2,000, calories daily to maintain their weight—don’t work in the long run because they disrupt important hormones and enzymes and set up a series of negative reactions in the body. “Anytime your body misses a meal—yes, just one meal—your body increases the release of lipogenic (fat-storing) enzymes. When lipogenic enzymes increase, the lipolytic or fat-burning enzymes decrease. This effect is much more pronounced in women than in men," Moitra explains.

Another downside, says Moitra, is that people often lose the will to stick to their diet plan.

According to clinical nutritionist Lovneet Bhullar Batra, there’s a happy mean between living to eat and eating to live. Her recommendation: Eat out, but try picking the rasgulla dessert over a deep-fried gulab jamun. A pasta made in tomato-based sauce adds up to about 360kcal, compared with a cheesy lasagna that’s about one and a half times as many calories. There are fixes to everything. Like this one: You know those people who don’t order anything off the dessert menu and then take a bite, or two, or three out of your chocolate mousse cake? Be one of those people. Because dessert gives you diminishing returns with each subsequent bite.

From 0-5km

Getting to your first 5km is the hardest, says Rahul Verghese, co-founder of the Running and Living community in Gurgaon, Haryana, which organizes marathons across the country. His top tips:

—Put your running gear by the side of your bed at night so that when you get up at 6am it is easy to get yourself ready and out for your run

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—During long runs on Sundays, run with a friend and talk. This helps build your lung and heart muscles; chatting during a run is not easy

—Keep a log of the conditions in which you run: what you were wearing, and how you felt physically and mentally. Then review your great runs and not-so-good runs and start understanding yourself better to become your own best coach

—Do strength-training twice a week—push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and squats, among other things—to build muscle strength

—Cross-train by doing aerobic activities other than running. These could include swimming, cycling, playing tennis or badminton.

The 20-minute, full-body workout

Increasingly, fitness experts are also telling you how to work around your schedule. Don’t have 60 minutes to exercise? No problem. How about 30 minutes, five days a week? Celebrity fitness expert Rujuta Diwekar writes in Don’t Lose Out, Work Out that 150 minutes of smart exercising a week is all it takes to “improve blood glucose tolerance, reduce body fat and the risk of all lifestyle diseases that come with obesity".

Don’t even have half an hour? How about 20 minutes? Walk, jog, swim, cycle.

Don’t miss a workout simply because a meeting has come up suddenly or you’re anticipating a packed day. If you can’t spare 60 minutes, make do with 20, but make them count.

Robin Gogoi says that if you’ve got 20 minutes to work out, treat it like you would an hour-long session. Take 3-4 minutes to warm up, 10 minutes for the exercises, and 2 minutes to cool down.

Kinetic chains and saluting the sun

Worried that you haven’t worked out in a long while and that if you start now you will be felled by muscle soreness? Who has time for aches and pains on top of the already busy and stressful lives we lead? Here’s a way out. Kickstart your return to a fitness regime with a simple set of Surya Namaskars. It will take you 15 minutes, and it acts as warm-up, strengthening and stretching all at once.

Abeba Alemayehu, a yoga trainer at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Nataraja Centre in New Delhi, says that if you can’t do anything else, do six rounds of the Surya Namaskar. That is, six times on the right side and six times on the left side. It’s not a complete workout—for example, she says, it does not include back stretches like twisting, but it’s a great start. It’s a movement workout, it will work the joints, improve balance and strengthen the core, and it is a low-impact exercise.

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Position 1 and 12. Photographs by Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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