Time crunched and trying to fit in your weekly workouts? Barely have enough minutes to read this article? You’re totally not alone.
Last month, I informally polled my Instagram fam asking how long, on average, they had to spend on workouts.
The most common answer? 45 minutes or less.
It made me pretty happy to hear that because I’d been secretly testing my new Made Strong program against a running clock of 45 minutes…I was still able to get a killer total body workout with stripped down equipment even with that time constraint.
If you want to skip right to my brand new Made Strong functional strength program, click here.
Here’s the thing:
You don’t have to spend two or three hours in the gym, five or six times a week to get a really effective workout that builds strength and confidence if you’re time crunched. I mean hey, if you have the time and you like super-long fitness sessions, that’s great! But most people who responded to my poll didn’t have that kind of time.
Watch my video about this post here:
If you’re anything like them, you’re a parent, student, or busy working outside the home – often more than one of those – and you’re looking for balance between doing some good things for your health and actually getting to enjoy your life.
And it’s possible that striking this harmony feels so overwhelming that you fall into “f*ck it” mode and don’t even start. “Well, I can’t go to the gym five times this week because XYZ…so I’ll start next week.” And on and on. But that ends today.
Six Workout Tips if You’re Time Crunched
1) Increase your NEAT.
Tough love Steph swooping in here: Some movement is better than none. And movement doesn’t just entail running for miles on end or making sweat angels on the floor after a doozy of a HIIT workout. It’s time to broaden your definitions of movement a bit and increase your NEAT.
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Put into common terms, it means that you can still spend energy (calories) by engaging in movement that isn’t “exercise.” Low key movement increases your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) relatively effortlessly. And the more non-exercise activity you can accumulate in your day, the less sedentary you’ll be. (Because even if you work out an hour a day in a formal fitness setting, you could theoretically be extremely sedentary in your remaining waking hours.)
Some examples of non-exercise activity include folding clothes, cleaning, gardening, playing with kids, alternating sitting with standing at work, walking meetings, light stretching, and even fidgeting. It appears that our naturally propensity to move may also be controlled, in part, by the brain…but there’s far more yet to be discovered on this topic. (source)
The bottom line here: Getting up and being active, even if it’s extremely low key, is better than sitting (or standing) still all the time.
2) Switch to functional, multi-joint movements.
Hey, I like a good biceps curl just as much as the next person…
But if you want the biggest fitness bang for your time buck, it’s time to incorporate functional movements into your workouts.
What’s a “functional” movement? It’s an exercise that mimics the way your body moves in everyday life; think lifting a suitcase into an airplane overhead bin, carrying several bags of groceries or a sleeping three-year-old, or picking a heavy box up off the floor.
Functional exercises improve your strength, balance, and coordination. And when you use these types of moves in your fitness routine, you get better at life-ing…moving through your day feeling confident and strong and staying pain-free.
Plus, did I mention that functional moves like squats, lunges, deadlifts, and push-ups are freaking great at building muscle which in turn, burns fat? Mmmhmm.
Functional movements are so damn good for time-crunched fitnessers that I built my entire new Made Strong Program around them.
These are the exact workouts I’ve been doing for the last year or so because they’re simple, they work, and they’re perfect if you’re time crunched (which I am right now…hello, book writing)!
3) Scrap long cardio sessions for intervals*.
If nothing gives you more joy than hitting the road for a long ride or run, that’s great. Do your thing! But if life is making it hard to get out there for a long cardio session, consider intervals instead.
In a nutshell, by performing intervals – essentially repeated periods of higher-intensity movement followed by lower-intensity movement or rest – you’ll get your heart rate up and get more work done in a shorter period of time. Please don’t think you have to do high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to the point of puking to get a benefit.
You may want to try something simple like a Tabata workout – 20 seconds of movement followed by 10 seconds of rest or sprint repeats in your local park. The idea is to occasionally move quickly in your training. Remember, longer is seldom better. (Heh.)
*As with all forms of exercise, context matters. Intervals or other intense exercise may not be right for everyone, especially if you have adrenal dysfunction or a compromised immune system.
4) Break it up.
Which is better for you? A 30-minute walk or three 10-minute walks?
I’m sure we could debate thermodynamics here, but for all intents and purposes, they’re the same. You don’t have to get a long, uninterrupted period of exercise for it to do your body good if you’re time crunched.
When you’re especially pressed for time, look for ways to sneak exercise into your routine separate from the NEAT I mentioned above. Walking 10 minutes on your lunch break, doing a couple weighted functional fitness moves before dinner for 20 minutes, and stretching for 30 minutes while you binge-watch The Crown adds up to an hour of movement.
Remember, you don’t have to wind up a sweaty mess for it to count as a workout.
5) Don’t underestimate play.
There’s this game I play at the gym sometimes called The Floor is Lava. It involves walking hand-over-hand across the pull-up bar as far as I can before I fall off. Because the floor is lava. Duh.
Is this exercise? Or is it play? Or is it both? (It’s both.)
If you have kiddos, use play as the perfect opportunity for you to get moving as a family instead of always having to find child care so you can get to the gym. (Hey, if that’s your “I just want to talk to adults time” that’s okay, too!)
No pull-up bar? Go to the park and play The Ground is Lava on the monkey bars. Or see how can jump the farthest. Or play tag. And if you don’t have kids, the same applies.
Sometimes we challenge each other to jump onto higher and higher stacks of bumper plates from kneeling. (That game is called “Jumpies.”) Sometimes I play around going from a hollow rock to a pistol squat. While they aren’t formal exercises, they’re a perfect way to keep workouts fun and unstructured.
It doesn’t have to be a formal “workout” in a gym to be good exercise.
6) Strength train.
Strength train. Strength train. Strength train.
Starting with functional bodyweight moves is awesome, but as you get stronger and your body adapts, the stimulus has to adapt, too. That typically means adding weight slowly but surely. (One of the common questions I get about strength training is how to get around a plateau. The first place to look is at what exactly you’re lifting. If you’ve been curling the same 5-pound dumbbells for 3 sets of 12 for the last year, it’s time to progress past that.)
Strength training with moderate to challenging weights for your level, two to three times a week, is all that’s really needed to stay in great shape, build some muscle, and get all the benefits of lifting weights (increased metabolism, better insulin sensitivity, opening pickle jars without asking for help, etc). I don’t know about you, but I’m all about that “see how little I can lift but actually see results” life because I’m not a professional exerciser. And I’m guessing neither are you.
If you need structure for strength training but you also value choice and working at your level with simple equipment (dumbbells / kettlebells), check out my brand new Made Strong Program.
Meet yourself where you’re at for fitness if you’re time crunched. If you don’t have five 2-hour long blocks to time to get a workout, that’s more than okay. Consider these ideas if you’re time-crunched:
- Get your non-exercise baseline of activity up each day to boost NEAT.
- Train with functional movements that are focused around common real-life movement patterns.
- Trade long cardio sessions for quicker interval work.
- Chunk up your movement throughout the day into shorter windows of time.
- Play around and have fun. It still counts.
- Lift weights two or three times a week for super efficient workouts.
Not all of these ideas may work for you, but there’s guaranteed to be something if you shift your thinking a bit and shrink the change. You’ve got this!
What’s your favorite tip for sneaking in a quick workout when you’re time crunched? Let me know in the comments below!
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