How do I fit workouts into a stressful schedule?
January 31, 2012 9:26 PM   Subscribe

How do I find time and motivation to stick to a workout plan, given a moderately stressful schedule, quite a bit of work, and not a huge amount of relaxation time (which working out would cut into)?

I'm in my senior year at undergrad art school, working on a senior thesis, taking five classes, and also working an internship. Generally on weekdays I'm working 9-4 or 9-7. I travel most weekends to visit friends, and the travel's not strenuous, but it means I leave home Saturday afternoon and return Sunday evening.

I'd like to try to work out once a day. I've got free weights and plenty of room; the difficulty is that working out isn't a habit, so I'm not motivated to start a workout, and frequently I want to relax in my free time and not exhaust myself. I've been trying to wake up earlier in the morning and work out before the day begins; the problem is that if I do anything social and late-at-night it totally kills the schedule.

I'd like advice on getting workouts into my schedule and making them more pleasant, at least until I've developed a habit for reliably working out. I feel like if I fit this in for a month or two, I'll start to accept it as a part of my life, but for those first months, I've got to figure out how to form a plan and stick to it.
posted by Rory Marinich to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The #1 thing that works for me?

Prioritize sleep.

Seriously. I cannot and will not work out consistently if I'm not getting my 9-10 hours a night. This means I need a bright-line bedtime that I cannot cross more than once a week, and never the night before a workout.

There are other things that can help - having a program with a good sense of progression and goals, having a workout buddy, consistent morning workout times, etc - but if you're not getting consistent and sufficient sleep, it's not going to stick and your body is not going to react well to it.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:30 PM on January 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

you've just described a schedule that's completely full. what are you willing to give up in order to work out?
posted by facetious at 9:30 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

When you say you are "working 9-4 or 9-7" do you mean as paid employment outside art school, or do you mean working at university on your studies? If the latter, can you go home for lunch? I love to work out at lunch time. It's a great break in the middle of the day, gives me an excuse to get my head out of my books (or out of my computer), and gives me a good appetite for my lunch. I feel more refreshed on the days I do that than when I work out early in the morning and then work through the full workday without much break. I do it by belonging to a gym on campus, five minutes from my office, but if you want to use your home equipment instead, going home might be an option if your commute isn't too long.
posted by lollusc at 9:33 PM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: lollusc: My 9-7 days are pretty broken up: I get an hour break and then an hour-and-a-half break. I find it difficult to work out in those breaks, though, because I know I have to rush immediately out again. The commute's no problem, though, so I can try working out in those spaces and see how I feel about it.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:36 PM on January 31, 2012

Work out in the morning. If you're up late, you may miss the next day. Don't stress it too badly. Getting 3-4 days/week this way shouldn't be too hard.
posted by kavasa at 9:48 PM on January 31, 2012 [7 favorites]

Can you work in some bicycle commuting? Because that might be all the workout you actually need.
posted by flabdablet at 9:51 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yep. Prioritize sleep. Wake up earlier:)
posted by jbenben at 9:52 PM on January 31, 2012

Response by poster: flabdablet: I am cursed with possibly the greatest commute in city college history. My college is two blocks away in one direction; my workplace is two blocks away in another direction; the workplace and the college are two blocks away from each other. It's a tragically lazy triangle.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:53 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

You don't need to work out every single day. In fact, you probably shouldn't when weights are involved. But more importantly, you also don't need to beat yourself up for not working out every single day.

Like kavasa said, three to four days a week of a solid workout is good. More than most (more than me!). On top of that, there's always little things you can do – weather's getting warmer so biking/walking is going to be an option soon.
posted by Modica at 10:40 PM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

For me, I cut myself off from TV shows unless I was working out in front of them. This got me in the habit of seeing working out as something I wanted to do, finding excuses to do, rather than a "oh, I should really do that." I also find if I'm not doing it every single day it makes it very hard to do/easy to blow off.

On weekdays, I have to get out of the house by 7am. So I wake up at 5am, work out as intensely as possible for about 40 minutes, shower, eat breakfast and get out the door. On weekends, the first hour of my day is working out. And who am I kidding -- I would have just sleepily wandered around the house for that first hour anyway.

Yeah, I get tired a little earlier. But I still do stuff in the evenings and don't stay out too late for "a school night" than I should anyway. On weekends, I can sleep in as long as my first hour is my workout. Being first thing in the morning, being intense and fairly short, I feel like I'm "in gear" faster and more alert so it doesn't feel like "wasted time" at all.

I found using Fitocracy got me into cramming more into my time as opposed to working out for longer -- getting more efficient. It also kept me honest about consistency, since I'm sharing my workout stats with friends.

So, even though I have a TV in front of my weights/exercise bike/floor mat, I no longer watch TV while working out because it distracts me. However, I also automatically wake up at 5am, too, which is just weird.
posted by Gucky at 10:42 PM on January 31, 2012

Don't try to work out every day! You are setting yourself out for failure. Try to 3-4 times a week at first. I like to go to the gym when I need a break on whatever I'm working on, to shake the cobwebs out. Like when you're blocked on something on thesis -- take half an hour to work out.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 10:57 PM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

if your gym has machines with attached TVs, you could schedule your cardio sessions to coincide with a show you like watching. Maybe twice or three times a week I'll watch the Colbert Report when it repeats the next day at 9.30am EST: that's a half-hour run right there to which I am totally motivated to commit, for reasons external to the workout. Beware the inevitable explosions of hysterical cackling, though---as if it weren't already hard enough to breathe doing 5 miles an hour. (Also, people will also look at you strangely).
posted by idlethink at 11:59 PM on January 31, 2012

Even though your commute is short, I still think biking would be a great start. Just getting in the habit of using a bike as your main transportation would sneak in the work out.
posted by murkywaters at 1:26 AM on February 1, 2012

My suggestion: what you need here is a mental tweak to your approach to this. Is there a beautiful place near you, or some exercise that you actually like so much that it isn't a chore?

Example A: I'm not a runner. I'm an ex-smoker. I really liked smoking. I'm the type of person that was absolutely delighted when Letterman would drive around in a van eating donuts and yelling through a megaphone to runners that they're still going to die.

I was also terribly overwhelmed with my school & work schedule (full time work, full time school, impossible self-imposed standards for myself, nasty insomnia to boot). I live uptown in NYC, so one day, completely fried and frustrated to the point of snapping after yet another unrelenting day of 8 hours of work and another 4 of classes and piles of dishes everywhere at home, I felt the need to flee, and went for a late night walk around the Central Park Reservoir. It's absolutely beautiful there. Rippling water, lapping wave sounds, quacking ducks, the downtown skyline all lit up on full display. And for some reason, despite being in jeans and not-at-all running shoes, I just started running as fast as I could - just to try to exhaust myself or pound out some of my pissiness with my feet - it was an complete impulse. I've been running there for six years now. And I actually only marginally enjoy the running part.

To be fair, I definitely like that I can run way farther than the absolutely pathetic distance I started with, and I like feeling my muscles working, and knowing that I'm doing something that falls into the vigorous exercise/healthy category and that I'm therefore officially taking care of myself. And I've lost 35 pounds, which is nice, though I wasn't really overweight when I started, and this was not remotely a goal. I kept running because I discovered that it's the only thing that shuts my head up. I joke that I'm too busy wheezing to do anything but that, but that's also kind of true. And while I'm running and therefore unable to drive myself insane with my usual torrent of thoughts because I'm too busy trying to breathe because that's way less easy when you're running, I'm utterly distracted from the fact that I'm running because I'm in this quiet, beautiful place in the middle of this massive city. I'm busy looking at shit. And I just happen to be running. And since I run in the evening, it's usually just me, some couples smooching on their romantic walk, police patrols, people walking their dogs right before bed, and the raccoons (and ok, yes, sometimes some very large rats). It's absurdly peaceful and pleasant. It becomes not about the exercise, though that's obviously what I'm doing there, in a way. Weirdly, it's more about stopping and taking a giant 'time out' from my daily bullshit.

Can you think of anything like that you can do? Any gorgeous, easy accessible place you can walk or run around and therefore distract the crap out of yourself from the fact that you're (ugh) exercising? Or some form of exercise that could maybe turn into something that you do because it feeds you in these weird other ways I'm describing? Because I think that would really help you in actually WANTING to do this, so you're not fighting to find the slightest shred of motivation amid all the tiredness.

I also think it's really important that you don't lay strict crap on yourself about this. I told myself I'd go running - or if I was tired, walking, or only running a little bit and then just moseying along, taking in the sights and chilling out after another long shitty day... just whatever I felt like doing, at any pace, as long as I actually got out there and did it three times a week. Sometimes I only get out there once. Sometimes I get out there 6 times a week. The part's that worked about it is that it's a simple, generally meet-able rule of thumb and not something I use to berate myself with when I don't get it all in. It really doesn't matter, as long as I keep going, and I keep letting myself enjoy it and not get hyper or controlling about any aspect of it or do anything that might jeopardize my love for this little crazy peaceful chunk of time that I've found for myself that clears my head and gets my wheeze on.
posted by involution at 1:26 AM on February 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

This is the sort of thing where others might help, I've found. You might want to either find a workout buddy or a PT to schedule with.

I've been in a similar situation, with a similar schedule. I found that when it's just me, I wouldn't make time for the workout. Not because I was lazy, but because I'd continue to prioritize work. I wouldn't give myself time for a break that was important to me.

But here's the thing, no matter how unable I am to be self-regarding in this fashion, I'm remarkably other-regarding. In other words, I won't give myself time off from work to do something that important to my health, sure. But at the same time, I absolutely positively won't break an appointment with someone else. If someone's expecting me to be at the gym at 3pm, I'm there. The hope has been that I'll internalize this eventually, but it hasn't happened yet.

In short, this might be the sort of thing where agreement with others matters.
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:41 AM on February 1, 2012

Are there any kinds of workouts you can build into your schedule, rather than taking time out of your schedule for? Example: I have no time for a gym (my kid needs to actually see me during awake hours, so more time at the babysitter for gym time is not an option). So instead of gym, I walk to work. That's 1 mile, twice a day, which is having a gradual effect on my physique. Are there accomodations along those lines you could make?
posted by Ys at 5:37 AM on February 1, 2012

You can develop a very short workout routine that gives you a lot of bang for your time. Here is a very good ten-minute workout. Here are some twenty-minute workouts. Either of those will cover most of your bases if done 3-4 times a week: anaerobic endurance, strength, and aerobic endurance to an extent. Certainly, you'll be "in shape" after a while.

I'm pretty short on time, too, so I favor short workouts as well. Every weekday morning I do two sets of the following:

10 burpees
10 mountain climbers (4 alternations per rep)
10 squat jumps

This takes literally five minutes. Since I also have a problem getting up early, the advantage of this is that it's only an extra five minutes. There's no good reason for me to skip it even if I get up late. It also happens to hit the sweet spot of being challenging enough to be meaningful while not being overly intimidating.

It also scales: It it's too hard or easy for you to do on a daily basis, you can add or subtract sets or subsets. (I got this routine from jiujitsu, where we did 3.3 sets). If this was the only exercise I got, I'd add sets. If I was coming from a sedentary background, I might drop a set.

Finally, some kind of gentle outside accountability like the kind you might get from Fitocracy (mentioned above) really helps in drilling it in as a habit. I've been using Health Month, which has worked out really well. The MeFit team is rather supportive and inspiring.
posted by ignignokt at 6:23 AM on February 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Do you find that you enjoy your workout once you start, but it doesn't seem so attractive beforehand? If that's the case it helps to remind yourself when you're "not in the mood" that you'll feel different once you actually get going.

Alternately if you don't actually enjoy what you're doing, look for something else. Tennis was a great option for me, and most of the people I played with found it great for unwinding after a day of working indoors. And yes, I did often times have to remind myself when I just felt like flopping down on the couch rather than going to a previously arranged game that I'd feel different once I got started.
posted by philipy at 6:48 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing waking up earlier. I'm a grad student who loves running and the only way to get in satisfactory distances and teach and research and write my thesis and go to class is to get up earlier. Giving up late nights doesn't even feel like a sacrifice anymore. I follow a training program each semester so I have an assigned workout each day and I find that makes it easier on mornings I think my bed is juuuust right.
posted by thewestinggame at 8:30 AM on February 1, 2012

For me, I have always included some form of working out into my life. I went to the gym in college every day spending at least an hour. After college I lifted weights 2x3 times a week for what I would say a half hour. I kept this up for several years. Now that I have a job that takes a bit more time, I just stick to pushups/situps/and some bicept curls 3 or 4 times a week for less than a 15 minute workout.

I think the biggest barrier to entry is the one you speak of: time. Getting yourself to regularly workout with a limited amount of time requires the lowest barriers. To give you a contrast of approach, my wife for example (whom I love) would buy these Yoga dvds and plan for these long cardio sessions on the treadmill while watching something on TV.

No big deal right?

Well, starting with the Yoga DVD. That means getting out a yoga mat from behind the couch, changing into workout gear, putting the DVD into the TV - finding the remote and starting it. All together, probably 10 minutes in prepration before you even press play. The DVD itself is 15-20 minutes. And then you have to put everything away when you are done. Total time is probably somthing like 30 - 45 minutes.

Now the tread mill. You have to change clothes into workout clothes again, find and tie up your shoes, get a magazine or find a TV station to watch. Typically you don't want to skip out in the middle of a TV show, so thats at least 30 minutes plus prep time.

I mention these because once you start to account for all of the prepartion and the entire workout regime whether you are working out or not, you tend not to even try to do it. When my wife thinks of working out - she does the mental math of having to find probably at least an hour of her day, making it more likely to not workout in the first place because she can't find the time what with the busy schedule and all.

This is what I refer to as a barrier of entry. All of the add-ons when you are not working out.

I would say first, get rid of the idea of working out everyday. Be realistic. Do it every other day if you can or every 3rd day. This falls into the concept of "anything is better than nothing" approach until you find out the days which systematically work for you.

Second, aim for short workouts. Having them short and effective is better than long strung out workouts. Why? Because you are more likely to do a short workout than a long one.

Third, do simple workouts. Today, I currently own a set of 20lb free weights and a slanted bench for situps. I use pushups as my main workout and try to do some curls/situps inbetween the push up workouts. I try to follow the 100 pushup schedule to slowly increase as I go. I walk my dog for cardio. So thats about all I do, pushups, curls, situps, dog walking for cardio if you want to count that. The key is to try to incorporate exercises that don't need equipment and can be done on the fly.

Hopefully you get my drift. Good luck.
posted by amazingstill at 8:34 AM on February 1, 2012

Well, I was going to recommend HIIT for cardio (super time saver; I get the same or actually better results doing 16 minutes 3x a week as I was doing 45 minutes 4-5x a week, no joke) but then saw you mention you're focusing on weights (I think?)--if you're talking free weights like a barbell and a bench, that heavy, then I'm not sure why you want to work out daily. It tends to be counterproductive, and 3x a week is fine, 4 if you really want to push it (but again, depending on what you're doing specifically that's actually counterproductive). I guess my advice depends on what your goal is, what you're wanting to get out of exercising. If it's just "a general sense of wellbeing, that I'm using my body at least once a day" then that's going have a different set of ideas than something like "I'm training to be in a 5k in 2 months" or "I want a more impressive looking chest" or whatever.
posted by ifjuly at 11:11 AM on February 1, 2012

Maybe rethink what a workout is? I was finding myself totally underwhelmed by the idea of going to the gym or running, but then I joined a capoeira class. Now I'm looking forward to working out because it's goal-directed. (fitter = better at martial arts)

Now the thing here is that I've wanted to take capoeira for over a decade, so I have some serious pent-up enthusiasm to burn on this. My suggestion to you would be to find that one physical activity that you've wanted to do forever and do it, and make the workout a part of that broader effort. You'll wake up every morning saying, "Man, I CAN'T WAIT to exercise so that I can be better at $_ACTIVITY!"
posted by lekvar at 3:27 PM on February 1, 2012

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