January 19, 2021

Often it’s not exercise that’s scary, it’s making time for it. Here’s how.

One of the biggest reasons people give for skipping exercise is lack of time. We all have full days and countless responsibilities. It can be difficult to shoehorn in a trip to the gym or even a jog around the block.

Unfortunately, life won’t automatically stop for an hour every day just because you vowed to work out. You’ll have to make time for it. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says adults should get 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, plus two muscle-strengthening sessions every week — at a minimum.)

Sounds daunting? It is, at first. But here’s how to make it happen:

You don’t need to have a full hour, or even a half hour. Exercise can be broken into a few shorter sessions if you truly cannot set aside more than 30 minutes at a stretch. For ideas on short, effective workouts, search Google or YouTube for the amount of time you have — “20-minute workout,” “10-minute workout” — and you’ll find many suggestions. If you’re completely new to exercise, talk to your doctor first about how to safely ease into your new habit.

Think creatively about time. Where can you find blocks of time? It might not be the same time every day. For many people, that time is first thing in the morning, before the day’s demands can interfere. But if the only time you can manage is during lunch hour, or after work, or after your kids are in bed, that’s better than no time at all.

Protect that time fiercely. This is the most important step. Don’t think half-heartedly (“I might get to Zumba at 4 p.m., maybe”). Consider your exercise an unbreakable, written-in-stone, must-happen appointment. Write it in your calendar in ink. Set reminders on your phone. Have exercise clothes and gear ready. This takes priority over errands, meetings, TV or whatever else usually creeps into this time slot. After it becomes routine, the people in your life will accept that during this time, you are unavailable; they will stop expecting your attention then. But it’s up to you to set this boundary and enforce it.

Trick yourself into exercise when you’re unmotivated. Despite your nice new exercise schedule, there will be days you feel tired, stressed, grouchy, etc.,  and tempted to skip the workout. Instead, give yourself permission to exercise for “just 10 minutes” instead of 30; or walk just one block instead of a mile; or use lighter weights at the gym. Chances are, once you get moving, your energy will pick up and you’ll complete your usual workout. Bask in the triumphant glory of your superhuman self-discipline! Yes! (You will never regret the workout. You will always regret skipping it.)

If, 10 minutes in, you are truly fatigued and can’t bear any more activity, pack it in — and know that 10 minutes of activity was better than none. Sticking with your routine is more important than the intensity of any one workout.

Find a workout buddy. You’ll be far less likely to ditch a workout when you know a friend expects you to walk together or show up for the same gym class.

Build variety into your routine. Keep the same exercise schedule over time, but don’t do the same activity every day. You’ll get bored and eventually will give it up, plus you run the risk of overuse injuries. If you go to the gym, use different equipment on different days, or switch between spinning, kickboxing classes, and rowing. If you always walk, vary your route or speed. If bad weather makes your usual workout uncomfortable or unsafe, have an indoor option (walking the mall? Using DVDs at home?) as a backup. Again, maintaining your workout schedule is crucial; what you do during that time should vary.

Still stuck on the part about finding slivers of time for exercise? Ask yourself these questions, and be brutally honest in your answers:

  • How much TV (or video games, social media, Netflix) do you watch each week? Surely at least some of that time can be spent away from the screen/couch and devoted to exercise. Or work out while watching (treadmill, yoga, jumping jacks, pushups, etc.).
  • Can you delegate some of your current responsibilities to free up some time? Assign your spouse or children to certain tasks, or hire someone to do them. Or trade housework with a friend so you each get some free time to exercise.
  • Do you truly know where your time goes? Try keeping a precise log for a few weeks, writing down what you do and how much time you spend on it. You might find surprises. If you really are booked 24/7, it’s time to delegate some responsibilities so you can take better care of yourself.
For those rare — very, very rare! — days when you’re thrown out of your carefully nurtured exercise routine (for example, during holidays): Here are ways to squeeze in some activity anyway.