[FAFQ] How Do I Fit Exercise In On A Tight Schedule?

If you’re a full time student, work a job that has a demanding schedule, have a lot of parenting responsibilities, or have any other limitations on your free time, you’ve probably struggled trying to fit exercise in alongside everything else. You know it’s important–but it just feels so hard to find the time to get it done.

Know you’re not alone. I went through four years of an incredibly busy undergrad–working the majority of the day 7 days a week while trying to maintain a 4.0 GPA, conduct research, have a social life, be part of clubs, and work a part time job. Now, I work full time in the tech industry and am adding on some grad school classes to that workload. My life has been incredibly busy for a long time now, and at first, I had no idea how to make it all work. Exercise fell to the wayside as I prioritized my work. Slowly but surely, though, I found a way to fit exercise into my tight schedule.

I never found that much helpful guidance on the Internet while I was going through my own struggle with this, so I wanted to share some advice on what worked for me in the hopes that it will help you out.

1. Prioritize Your Health

The most important factor for me was prioritizing my health. The only way to reliably ensure that I got my workouts in was to tell myself that health matters more than the other tasks on my plate.

To be optimally equipped for whatever is taking up all of your time–and to live a happy and fulfilling life–you need to be healthy. Taking the steps to ensure that your body is in good shape–even if it can feel like a waste of time in the short run–is going to be a much better investment than spending that time on, say, adding the finishing touches to your essay for school.

I found that my performance in school and work did not diminish at all when I prioritized my fitness and made an effort to ensure I was getting adequate exercise. In fact, it actually seemed to increase because I felt like I had more energy, better focus, and fewer depressive thoughts.

So take action to prioritize your health. Rather than staying late at work, take 30 minutes to go on a run. Rather than perfecting your powerpoint, go lift some weights. Put exercise at the top of your priorities list and things will start to get easier.

One way to help make sure this happens is to physically add your exercise time into your calendar! This will help make your brain think it is on the same importance level as the rest of your appointments and calendar items.

2. Pick A Strategic Time To Work Out

I’ve found that the timing of exercise plays a big role in getting me to stick with it. If I try to exercise at the end of the day, I’m usually exhausted. I work extra hard to find myself an excuse not to go. But if I go first thing in the morning, before I head to work or school, then it’s way easier. I can cross it off the list and don’t need to think about it again.

What works for me, though, does not work for everyone! Some find it easiest to work out on a lunch break, in the mid afternoon, or even late at night. You should test out a few different times until you find out which time has you wanting to get out of it the least often.

To make this process even easier, I also recommend strategizing so that your timing fits with the location of your fitness activity in a way that promotes maximum convenience. What does this mean? For example, if you go to college, scheduling your gym workout right before/after class so you can just do the gym and class in one trip rather than make yourself have to take a separate trip for your workout. Or if you work an office job, find a gym between home and work and go on your way there or on your way home. This decreases mental resistance and can also help build in a routine if you stick with the same schedule.

Decrease resistance by scheduling your exercise alongside other trips, such as on the way to/from work or school.

3. Find Some Form Of External Accountability

Fitness classes are a great way to motivate you to stick with your workouts.

Some people have really strong internal motivation and discipline and–all on their own–can make themselves exercise every day even if they don’t want to. But for most people, it’s not that easy. External accountability can be a great way to get that extra push if you can’t motivate yourself.

Two of my favorite ways to promote external accountability are: 1. Find an accountability buddy, and 2. Sign up for a paid class.

The idea with the first is quite simple. Find another person–a friend, a coworker, or a family member–who is also interested in working on their fitness and agree to hold one another accountable. Tell your buddy your exercise goals and ask them to check in with you to make sure you’re achieving them and actually doing your workouts like you say you are. That can mean agreeing to share pictures from your workouts, having your buddy text you a reminder to go exercise, discussing your exercise plan for the day, or anything else you come up with. If negative reinforcement works for you, you can also ask them to tell you to do better when you fail. In exchange, agree to do the same for your buddy.

I’ve found that having someone else check in on me makes sticking with my habits really easy, because when I fail, I’m no longer just letting myself down–I’m also letting someone else down–and that provides a lot of motivation to keep me going.

Another option is to use a fitness class–particularly a paid one–as external motivation. The great thing about fitness classes is that they are on a set schedule. If you miss one, it’s over. You can’t make it up, unlike a normal workout that you might complete alone. That by itself can be a great motivator to exercise. You don’t want to miss out, so you take the extra effort to make sure you make it to the class. If money is involved, this motivational power is much stronger (at least it has been for me). If you pay $150/month for a class that happens twice a week, each class costs you nearly $20! If you don’t go, it feels like you’re just tossing a $20 bill down the drain. You want to get your money’s worth, so you’ll go to class even if you’re not feeling it. If it weren’t a paid event, you’d probably skip.

The one place you need to be careful with this strategy, though, is to make sure you don’t pick a class that’s too time consuming. If you sign up for a two-hour class three times per week, that’s a pretty big time commitment and will form a bigger mental block in your head than something shorter. If you’ve had. a busy day and don’t have much time, it’s going to be way easier to do some kickboxing for 45 minutes than to do a 90 minute weightlifting session. In my experience, the optimal class time is 45-6- minutes, no more than three times per week.

4. Use The 2-Day Rule For Habit Formation

In order to fit exercise into a tight schedule, it’s important to make it a regular habit–to integrate it so that it just becomes a normal part of your schedule.

One of my favorite habit-building tips to help facilitate this is to use the 2-day rule. I learned about this strategy from one of my favorite productivity YouTubers, Matt D’Avella. The basic idea with the 2-day rule is this: don’t allow yourself to take off more than one day in a row from the habit you’re building (in this case, exercise). If you work out on Wednesday, you can take Thursday off, but then you need to start back up again on Friday.

A sample workout calendar using the 2-day rule

This is one of the easiest ways to make exercise a habit. If you stick with the 2-day rule for a few weeks or months, exercise will start to come naturally to you. Once it becomes part of your routine, it almost takes more effort to not do it than to do it.

You can learn more about. the 2-day rule in Matt’s video here.

5. Consider Exercise Multitasking

If setting aside a long chunk of time just for exercising feels like a little too much of an ask, you can also try what I call exercise multitasking: when your exercise activity accomplishes more than just the goal of increased fitness.

What does this look like in practice? Some ideas include:

  • Instead of driving to work/school, make your commute–something you already have to do–an opportunity for fitness. Bike, walk, scooter, or skateboard instead.
Skateboarding is my favorite alternative (and active) transportation method!
  • Rather than having purely separate social time and exercise time, combine them. Sign up for a group fitness class or get a friend to go to the gym with you.
  • Combine exercise and learning. Listen to an audiobook or podcast while doing your workout,
  • If you work at an office that has conference calls or you have meetings on your schedule that can be completed audio-only, try a walking meeting, where you bring your phone and headphones with you and take your call while on a walk. This is an easy way to get 30-60 minutes of exercise in without adding any time to your normal schedule.

Fitting exercise in on a tight schedule can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. With some thoughtful strategizing, you can almost always make time for healthy habits.

I want to hear what worked for you and what didn’t! If you found anything helpful–or even counterproductive–in these recommendations share your thoughts with me.

For more answers Frequently Asked Fitness Questions, see this collection.

How Do I Start Eating Healthy? – Prioritize Balance, Not Extremes

One of the things I find so frustrating about a lot of lifestyle and health influencers–and health culture in general–is the focus on extreme diets or non-science-backed cleanses.

Consider the Keto diet–a high fat, low carb diet plan that attempts to put the body into a fat-burning state. It’s everywhere. The ice cream section at your local grocery store probably has a subsection of Keto. There are hundreds of books explaining the diet and providing recipes. And if you google “I tried keto”, you’ll get seemingly endless results of people trying the diet and promoting their results. But it can actually be really unhealthy to the average person if done long term.

Keto tends to be heavy in animal products, like steak, which aren’t great if consumed in large quantities.
  • Keto can lead to kidney stones. Eating too many animal products (often necessary for high fat/high protein/low carb) can produce acid and lead to increased calcium output, which increases kidney stone risk.
  • It can be really difficult to get enough fiber, since fibrous foods often tend to be higher carb (think whole grains and fruits). Fiber is really important for proper bowel health, and not having enough of it can lead to blockages and other unpleasant problems.
  • Keto may lead to decreased bone mineral density, which means weaker and more brittle bones.
  • Animal products tend to be unhealthy in large quantities due to their high amount of saturated fat. Higher carb, vegetable-forward diets, rather than animal-focused ones, are much better for long term health.

Keto can be a good option for people with certain health conditions, but it’s not really that good of an option for the average person.

It’s easy to see all these flashy diets and think they’re the answer to all of your weight loss problems, but in many cases, they’re not. In some cases that’s because they’re genuinely unhealthy, but often, it’s because they’re unsustainable.

The best diet for you is one that you can stick with!

The problem with a lot of restrictive diets that are promoted today is that they’re nearly impossible to actually stick with if you’ve come from a totally different background.

If you’re a big animal product consumer and you suddenly decide that being vegan is the way to finally lose those extra pounds, if you cut out all the meat and dairy cold turkey, it’s not going to go well at all.

The human body does not do well with extreme and sudden change. You’d probably experience really unpleasant gut problems, have a serious difficulty finding enough recipes you like to suddenly replace all your old meals, and find yourself unsatisfied with the new tastes. After enough frustration, you’d just abandon ship.

That’s not healthy at all! It’s the same with extremely calorie restrictive diets. If your body needs 1800 Calories per day, but the internet tells you to go for only 1200 so that you can burn a bunch of fat, you’re going to be starving. You’ll be constantly hungry, feel weak and tired, and probably will cave and eat a snack, meaning the diet got you nowhere. Plus, you’re more likely to be stressed trying to meet your calorie goals.

This is not a meal! But it can sometimes feel like all you’ve got if you’re restricting calories.

If you’ve been frustrated by challenges like this, you’re not alone! I’ve experimented with calorie restriction and sudden diet changes, and it’s never worked out well. I was left with all of the problems I just described and felt miserable. But over time, and with a lot of experimentation, I have finally started to find a solution that works: balance.

There is no universal best diet. The best diet for you is whichever one that you can stick with–so long as it promotes some balance and stays away from extreme and unhealthy habits.

How does this balance look in your day to day life? No two individuals will have identical plans, but my diet strategy looks as follows.

I try to incorporate both healthy behaviors and less healthy behaviors, but weigh them in favor of the former. The occasional unhealthy activity helps me feel satisfied and fulfilled, without being so often as to negatively impact my health in any non-miniscule way.

On the healthy side of things, I try to use the following guidelines in my week:

  • Cook my own food most of the time, so that I can control what’s going into it, rather than rely on guessing how healthy something is.
  • When cooking, I try to make plant-forward meals and limit my consumption of animal products, except the occasional item low in saturated fat (such as turkey breast or low fat greek yogurt) or a small dash of cream in my coffee. I don’t commit to full on veganism or any other restrictive diet, but just try to make informed choices to ensure that I get enough vitamins and minerals, enough protein, and enough fiber, without consuming too many unhealthy fats.
  • I try to minimize added sugar in both the food I prepare and the food I purchase. If I make banana chocolate chip muffins, for example, I’ll rely only on the sugar from the chocolate chips and bananas, and skip any additional sugar the recipe calls for. And if I get a sweetened drink from a shop, I’ll go for a less sugary option (such as 25% sugar at a bubble tea place).
  • I try to buy in-season products from the local farmers’ market, which tend to be more nutritious than out-of-season supermarket items and also lower in dangerous pesticides.

However, I also allow some flexibility in my week and don’t only eat health foods 24/7. This has a few benefits for me:

  1. It helps me ensure I can fit in social activities where food is involved without being stressed about what I’m consuming.
  2. It reduces the overall amount of brainpower and emotional energy I spend on food because I get an opportunity to eat unrestricted and don’t need to feel bad about my choices.
  3. I get to enjoy a delicious treat every once in a while, which brings me joy!

A little more specifically, I try to allow the following:

  • A dessert or fun sweetened drink a couple of times in a week (typically limit this to about two, but it can be flexible). I try to choose healthier options, like frozen yogurt over ice cream, but if I’m feeling like ice cream no one’s stopping me!
  • I will go out to a restaurant 1-2 times per week, but typically just at dinner (this could be lunch, too, if you prefer that–I just like using dinner as a social time). When I’m there, I can get whatever I want! Sometimes I’ll eat a burger and fries, sometimes a healthier dish. It depends on how I’m feeling, but whatever I’m feeling is fair game.
  • If I’m going on vacation for a few days, I drop any self-imposed restrictions on eating. One of the most amazing parts of travel for me is being able to taste new and delicious foods, and limiting myself to only plant-based foods means I miss out on a lot of options–plus it can be a lot more stressful trying to find really healthy restaurants, especially if traveling with friends and family who don’t share the same health focus in their dining. On vacation, I’ll still eat healthy sometimes, but I also allow myself to try whatever looks good.
  • I don’t work off of a calorie restriction. Calorie counting is very popular in the weight loss community, but I’ve personally found it to be way too time consuming and also detrimental to my mental health by forcing me to spend all my free time thinking about food. Rather than restricting myself to a set amount of food per day, I work on eating primarily healthy and nutritious foods (which, it turns out, tend to be lower in calories) and stop when I start to feel full. If I eat a ton one day, that’s okay. Rather than stress about failing a daily goal, I can think about the fact that I enjoyed my food and maybe later in the week I’ll try to make healthier choices to balance that out.
I probably eat something like this bad boy once per week! It tastes great, but in moderation is not all that bad for my health!

Getting yourself to a healthy diet is not easy. A lot of the steps I’ve achieved by now are the result of years of hard work, and it took a lot of frustration and mistakes to get here. If you’re struggling, the most important thing is to not beat yourself up. Physical health is incredibly important, but so is your mental health. It’s not worth throwing one down the drain to get the other.

If you take one thing away from this article, have it be the following: don’t obsess over perfection in your diet. That’s a recipe for stress, depression, and poor results. If you want to be healthy, work on finding a diet you can stick with, one you enjoy, and one that prioritizes balance and flexibility. It will take a while to get there, but you can do it if you take it slow, plan carefully, and forgive yourself when you struggle.

You can do it!