Practical tips for making activity a natural part of your day

Ask people what they would like to spend more time doing, and exercise comes up a lot. The usual excuse is that we do not have the time. This is the assumption behind all the articles in magazines on “the 14-minute workout that burns fat fast!” or machines that promise an all-over workout in 8 minutes. To be honest, though, I do not think the problem is that people could find 14 minutes, but cannot find 20. I think it is that people do not want to exercise.

Which is fine! If something is not a priority, best to own that truth.

If it is, though, here are my 11 favorite ways for moving things around to make the pieces fit.

1. Don’t think daily.

When people decide they want to exercise, they often then talk themselves out of it because there is not a perfect time every single day. I would love to exercise…but I travel for work. I would love to exercise…but I am not the kind of person who can leave for an hour at lunch daily. I would love to exercise…but I want to get home to see my family at night. All of these may be true, but irrelevant. Exercise does not have to be done at the same time every single day. Instead, use any of these slots once or twice a week and see if that feels more manageable. If you go to the gym one day after work, that is four weekdays you are going straight home, to say nothing of weekends.

2. Double up.

To keep exercise from feeling like a total time-suck, combine it with something else you need to do. It is the whole golfing-with-a-client concept, though you can tweak it for modern sensibilities. Go for a run with a client or colleague. Many one-on-one meetings can be turned into walking meetings (plot out a few routes near the office that take common meeting lengths: 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour). Incorporate physical activity into your commute. Not every day, perhaps (see point 1) but if Fridays are casual in your office, maybe that is a better day to walk, or ride the bike, or take mass transit (which often involves brisk walking when you realize you are late for the bus).

3. Make it fun.

If you hate spinning, you will not get up at 5:00 A.M. to do spin class. You will for a week or two, and then something will happen (business trip, flu, etc.), and you will not go back. Figure out a form of exercise you like, or if that is not possible, a form you despise least. Treat it as social time and get a group of friends to work out together. Start a competition with someone to keep both of you accountable. Exercise with your spouse to make it a date. Exercise with your children to make it quality time. You don’t have to call it exercise — fun stuff like jumping rope or playing chase in the backyard can count. Find beautiful routes to bike or run. A gorgeous trail through some late spring honeysuckle is more motivating than a basement treadmill. That said, the treadmill can be great if you have a TV in front of it and use the time to watch your favorite shows (or listen to your favorite audiobooks or podcasts on headphones).

4. Something is better than nothing.

Much of the research into physical activity is finding that even small amounts are helpful. This is particularly true of certain sorts of exercise (a bit of strength training can go a long way). On really busy days, sometimes I will change into my exercise clothes when a scheduled 30-minute call takes 20 minutes. Then I will sit there working in my exercise clothes until I have a 30-minute open slot somewhere else. Note: this is a great reason to work from home 1-2 days per week if possible. During my winter weekends when I was on solo little kid duty Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I would jump on the treadmill for 20 minutes as soon as the baby went down for a nap (I would let my daughter watch a video during that time). That said…

5. Longer and fewer can work too.

If you want to run 15 miles per week, it will take less time to run 5 miles on 3 days vs. 3 miles on 5 days, since there are transaction costs to any activity. There are lots of reasons to exercise, and you may prefer the 5-day option for other reasons, but when I am training for something, I often feel like I spend less time exercising overall, because I do one long run on one weekend morning, and then run fewer days during the week.

6. Shift by half an hour.

If you go to bed 30 minutes earlier twice a week, you could wake up 30 minutes earlier those mornings and do a quick 2.5 mile run (outside or on a treadmill) before work. Morning exercise does not have to involve a 5:30 A.M. hour-long spinning class if you do not want it to.

7. Give each parent one weeknight off.

If you are co-parenting, each parent can take a night solo, giving the other party time to work late and get to the gym without adding to the babysitting bills. If you are parenting solo, the kids may be convinced to spend an hour once a week in the gym childcare area, particularly if you do something fun (swimming together?) after.

8. Become the kind of person who can leave for an hour at lunch.

I have interviewed a few highly successful people lately who have decided that a major upside of building so much career capital is the ability to walk out at lunch and go to boot camp. Again, it does not have to be daily. If you are not scheduled for certain shifts or paid by the hour, then you can take advantage of downtime during the day to exercise. Twice a week, try moving some email and administrative work to the night time after your kids go to bed, and meet with a trainer during the 90 minutes that frees up.

9. Be a weekend warrior.

If you are cannot exercise during the workweek, it is still possible to hit three times per week by exercising Friday after work, Saturday morning, and Sunday evening.

10. Think through your weekends.

If weekends involve a lot of kid sports and birthday parties, take a few minutes to plot out the schedule, and where exercise might fit in. If you do not do this, it probably will not occur to you that you should go for a run at 9:00 A.M. Saturday, because the first practice is at 11 A.M. and things get hairy after that. You will dither around all morning, and then have to get in the car at 10:40, and the window will be gone (I speak from experience here).

11. Don’t write off evenings.

Especially in late spring, summer, and early fall, an after dinner constitutional with the family is a good way to get in some extra steps. If you put young kids to bed at 8:00 P.M., and go hit the treadmill or weights or a workout video, you can be done by 8:30, giving you 2 solid hours before a 10:30 bedtime (plus, it turns out night time exercise interferes less with falling asleep than people once thought. Exercise helps people sleep better — whenever it is done).


A version of this article originally appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website