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Fitting in Fitness: Exercise Options for Busy People

Bryant Stamford, PhD


Being physically inactive is as damaging to your health as smoking cigarettes. A large majority of Americans shun smoking because of the health implications. Why, then, aren't more Americans willing to exercise?

Part of the reason may be the word "exercise." Exercise seems to imply rigid, "no-fun" workouts that make us huff and puff and sweat. Workouts also can be time-consuming: It's hard to find time in a busy day to get to a gym, change, work out, shower, change again, and drive home. Unfortunately, for many Americans, exercise is viewed as an impractical burden that complicates rather than complements a busy life.

But there is another option. Moderate physical activities like brisk walking can promote health nearly as much as vigorous workouts. This means we can set aside the boot-camp mentality in favor of physical activities that are less demanding and more enjoyable.

Making Workouts Work

Softening the rules doesn't mean, though, that you can play checkers on your lunch hour to satisfy your body's need for physical activity. You need to get at least 30 minutes daily of moderate physical activity that involves moving your whole body. Try some of these tips on fitting exercise into your busy day.

Commit yourself. You owe it to yourself and your family to be as healthy as you can be. Committing to daily physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Goal for it. Set short-term and long-term goals. A short-term goal could be starting from scratch and adding a minute a day to your exercise regimen. A long-term goal could be losing weight or lowering your blood pressure.

Break it up. Exercise doesn't have to be structured. Busy people can get much the same benefits when they exercise in bits and pieces throughout the day as when they work out in one block of time.

Pencil yourself in. On especially busy days, you may not be able to spontaneously get a minimal amount of physical activity, so you need to plan ahead. Pencil in an exercise appointment, and consider it a mandatory meeting.

Avoid the all-or-nothing trap. If circumstances prevent you from doing everything you planned for the day, do what you can and don't worry about it. Tomorrow is a new day with new opportunities to exercise.

Keep perspective. If you fall off your routine for a time because of injury or illness, just get back on. Interruptions are part of life.

Be realistic. Don't focus on exercises you find unpleasant or uncomfortable. Choosing activities you enjoy will help you stick with your program.

Gear up. Spontaneous exercise may depend on having walking shoes or a change of clothes available.

Have equipment on hand. Buy a piece of exercise equipment, place it in a convenient location at home, and jump on it when you have a few minutes to spare.

Recruit a friend. Engaging in physical activities together is a good way to keep a friendship alive.

Jump on spare time. On weekends or other "down time," take a long walk or a hike in the woods.

Balance your workouts. New guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine suggest three to five days of aerobic workouts, two to three strength training sessions, and two to three flexibility workouts per week. You may need to work up to that level, but try to incorporate all three types of exercise into your week. Working three types of exercise into an already tight schedule may sound like a lot, but it may take less time than you think (see "The Mini Workout" below).

The aerobic workouts (like running, biking, or brisk walking) should ideally total 20 to 60 minutes a day. Strength training (also called weight lifting or weight training) should involve one set each of 8 to 10 exercises that work all major muscle groups. Flexibility exercises should stretch the major muscles throughout the body.

Create exercise. The possibilities for physical activity are limited only by your imagination (see "Creative Takes on Exercise," below).

Creative Takes on Exercise

  • Use stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. When at home, climb to the second floor as often as possible. For variety, take the stairs two at a time, or step up the pace.
  • Walk when you can. Park an extra block from your destination or at the rear of the parking lot. Look for the longest, rather than the shortest, route.
  • Get up from your chair (permanently lose the TV remote) or out of your car more often (avoid drive-through windows).
  • When unloading groceries from your car, carry one bag at a time into the house.
  • Start a hobby like gardening that makes you move.
  • View chores like lawn mowing, dusting, and vacuuming as opportunities to exercise.
  • Turn off the TV and play with the children, which will tax you as much as you allow.
  • Try dancing. There are styles to suit any preference.
  • Learn a new sport. Take golf, tennis, or racquetball lessons.
  • Do double duty. When you shop for groceries, move quickly down the aisles. You may miss some items and have to backtrack, but that only adds to your workout.
  • Join groups that are active, like mall walkers, hikers, or bicyclists.

The Mini Workout

If you enjoy vigorous workouts but can't seem to find the time regularly, try an abbreviated workout when time is tight. The key is increasing the intensity to compensate for the reduced duration.

Heart-lung fitness. One example is to run faster over a shorter distance. Running as little as 1 mile three times a week at a fast pace can sustain a reasonably high level of fitness. But be careful. High-intensity exercise can be hard on joints and may require an extended warm-up. An alternative may be a vigorous activity that is not so punishing, such as swimming or in-line skating uphill.

Another option is splitting your exercise time in two by doing some exercise in the morning before work, then more later in the day. Research suggests that the fitness benefits of segmented exercise may be as great as one longer effort.

Strength. Even resistance exercise (weight lifting or weight training) can be adapted to a stingy schedule. Take an unloaded barbell and perform as many repetitions (reps) as possible of an exercise like curls in 30 seconds. Shoot for 30 reps, or 1 per second, and maintain strict form throughout. Rest only 30 seconds, then shift immediately to the next exercise and perform as many reps as possible in 30 seconds. Continue this work-rest pace through 8 or 10 exercises that challenge the major muscle groups of the body
in minutes.

A word of caution: Although you will use a barbell that is much lighter than you normally would use, this mini workout is tough. If you have little or no experience with weights, rest longer between sets. If you are more experienced, add a little weight to the bar, and don't rest between exercises.

Flexibility. Many flexibility exercises can be done almost anywhere. Some examples are stretching the calf muscles by leaning forward against a wall with one leg extended back, stretching the hamstrings at the back of your thighs by lying on the floor with legs extended up a wall, doing side-to-side looks and ear-to-shoulder stretches for the neck, doing shoulder shrugs and rolls, and tracing circles with arms extended out to the sides.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Stamford is director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center and professor of exercise physiology in the School of Education at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He is also an editorial board member of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.




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