I’m Too Busy to Exercise

I’m Too Busy to Exercise

For everyone who is too busy to exercise, it’s time to reevaluate how you think about exercise.

Reframing Exercise

Exercise as a tool to maximize time

I think most people accept that there are numerous benefits to exercise—weight loss, reduced risk of chronic disease, physical strength increases, alleviated symptoms of anxiety and depression, and many more [1][2][3]. But still, exercise seems like yet another thing to pile onto your already heavy load, something that you simply do not have time or energy for.

The issue here is that we see exercise as an optional activity, even a luxury, not as an integral part of our lives. And for the busy bees out there, it’s often low on the priority list. But we are meant to move. In fact, exercise is precisely the solution to taking control over a busy, stressful life. The Harvard Business Review puts it quite nicely:

Instead of viewing exercise as something we do for ourselves—a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work—it’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself. The alternative, which involves processing information more slowly, forgetting more often, and getting easily frustrated, makes us less effective at our jobs and harder to get along with for our colleagues… Remember, you’re not abandoning work. On the contrary: You’re ensuring that the hours you put in have value.

In other words, by engaging in exercise, you are working to solve the very problems—stress, lack of time, low energy—that you originally saw as blockers to exercising. Which is to say that you likely aren’t “too busy to exercise”—you only assumed such because of a particular framing of exercise.

Exercise as movement

Let’s say you’ve internalized the above and believe that exercise can help you live more productively. Even so, exercise can still seem daunting. Many people associate exercise with long, intense, uncomfortable workout sessions; whether they picture exercise in the gym or somewhere else, most are predominately overwhelmed by the time and effort it takes to get a sweat on, not to mention the time it takes to prepare for a workout or transition physically and mentally to what’s next on the agenda. Moreover, for someone new to exercise, high-intensity workouts are often intimidating and unsustainable.

The good news is that it’s not necessary to clock in hours on the treadmill each week. The key, instead, is to get moving. In other words, the health benefits of more traditional, structured exercise, can also be reaped through accumulating short bouts of activity throughout the day.

Tactical Advice

Exercise guidelines

The current exercise guidelines in the U.S.A. are the following:

  • “For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.
  • “Adults should also include muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.”

If this seems overwhelming, focus on one sentence: “Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.” By taking, say, two brisk 10-min walks every day, one in the morning and one in the evening, you are just below the recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise. Up this to two 11-min walks per day, and you’ll be above the recommendation.

To meet the additional recommendation for muscle-strengthening activities, you can add, say, a 5-10 minute daily strength training routine that rotates through the major muscle groups: legs on day 1, arms on day 2, core on day 3, repeat.

Make it a lifestyle

Some of you may already feel a sense of relief (”Two 11-min walks? 5 minutes for strength? That’s totally doable!”). For others, however, this might still seem impossible.

If you can’t manage 10 minutes of continuous activity in your busy schedule, don’t worry! Even a few minutes of movement throughout the day can be beneficial. Here are some ways to sneak it in:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Choose parking spots that are farther away from your destination. (Side benefit: You’ll likely have fewer cars parked next to you, which means there’s less of a chance of people bumping your car when they open their doors.)
  • Use an exercise ball instead of a chair at your desk, and consciously engage your core.
  • When brushing your teeth, practice calf raises or balancing on one leg.
  • Take a walk when on the phone or having a 1:1 with a colleague.
  • Do some light stretching or strength training when watching or listening to something—whether that be a conference call at work or a TV show at the end of the day. Exercise examples: body-weight squats, calf raises, crunches, plank, push ups.
  • Bias towards physical activities for retreats, family gatherings, and time with friends. Examples: Take your team to an outdoor field to bond over low-intensity sports or relay races; Play catch or frisbee with your kids instead of a board game; If you have older kids (say, 10+), engage the entire family in spontaneous plank, sit-up, or pushup competitions; Choose a hike with friends instead of a movie or restaurant meal.
  • Create a daily 5-minute routine for yourself to do right when getting up in the morning, and/or as you wind down in the evening after work. Example: [30s plank, 30s pushups, 30s squats] x 3, 30s hamstring stretch; if you want to get your heart rate going a bit more, start off with some jumping jacks. Of course, tailor this routine to suit your fitness level—you can take more breaks if you need, you can add weights, etc.

Every little bit counts, and you’ll be amazed at how many “active minutes” you can accumulate by fitting in small bouts of movement throughout the day.

Keeping it up

Regardless of how much movement you end up getting, it’s important to reflect on how you feel; it’s hard to maintain something you feel is not helping you, no matter how easy or trivial that something may be. It may take a while for some effects (e.g., weight loss, reduced risk of chronic disease) to manifest, but there are indeed numerous immediate benefits to physical activity. As suggested at the start of this post, exercise is a way to increase productivity and mental clarity, but there are many other immediate benefits [1][2][3], e.g.:

  • Increases in: energy, focus, memory, productivity, happiness
  • Reductions in: stress, anxiety, irritability, fatigue

Noticing these benefits can be extremely helpful in both identifying what works best for you and in maintaining healthy behaviors when motivation feels weak. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get moving!


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