I don’t love the articles that are out there on getting a good workout when you’re a new parent. Or any other sort of busy person!
A lot of them give very nonspecific advice about priorities or time management. “Put in the effort” is an actual heading I’ve seen, for example.
The is a guide to some specific strategies I use to stay in reasonable shape when things get busy.
1) Exercise without a gym
Gyms are useful, but they really restrict your freedom to work out when (and of course where) you want.
Learning to enjoy exercises that you can do outside of a gym, particularly if they also require no equipment, is extremely helpful in staying in shape when you don’t have control over your time.
Running is the obvious example, and see below for ways to run so that it doesn’t seem so boring.
Bodyweight exercises, like push-ups and sit-ups, are helpful. There are hundreds of them, targeting almost every area of the body and letting you get some good cardio in as well.
Jump rope is an even more efficient cardio and upper-body workout than running, and speed rope like this or this can fit in your pocket.
Consider taking a parkour class or reading up on it. Not only is parkour fun, it’s really useful because it makes you look at your surroundings as an obstacle course. For example, I’ll sometimes go for a run and then climb around a little on some scaffolding. Stairs are a gym in themselves since you can run up and down them in interesting ways, crab-walk or go on all fours, jump from stair to stair, and so on. Even hills can be useful for built-in interval training.
You can also buy home equipment, like pull-up bars, and kettlebells, and even weights (light ones, if you’re starting out, are cheap and easy to store). I sometimes save my chin-ups for when I get home, and then do them on the chin-up bar in the kitchen.
2) Break up your exercises in time and place
You don’t have to do your workouts in one chunk.
Let’s say you have a 45-minute weight routine you like. Including the time spent getting to and from the gym, you end up spending over an hour on your workout. But it might not be easy to break away for over an hour, especially if the only time you have is at lunch or just after work.
To solve this problem, do your machine exercises in the gym, jump in the car or run home, then finish your bodyweight exercises at home. I’ll sometimes do this if I mess up my schedule and only have half an hour at the gym: do my weight exercises there, shower if necessary, get on a call or go home (or both), then finish up later on.
This can actually lead to better workouts, since by resting your muscles for a while you can push through more work later on.
3) Combine activities
I joined my local chapter of the Hash House Harriers, which describes itself as a “running club with a drinking problem”.
“Hashing” is insanely fun and in and of itself and could easily be the subject of another post, but one major advantage of hashing for me is that is combines socializing and working out.
(Not working out very hard, mind you, in this case. But it’s usually at least a 3-mile or 4-mile run, with a fair amount of hard running in there if that’s what I want.)
A much more typical example of this is biking to work. When the weather’s nice, I get a decent workout commuting by bike. When I lived closer to work, I used to run home. Since the bike to work takes me about an hour, and the commute takes 45 minutes, net time spent working out is 15 minutes.
You should also combine activities during your workout as well. For example, jump rope is a full-body workout. So are push-ups and chin-ups. If you’re a busy person, it may not make sense for you to focus heavily on just one muscle group, or work out at a low intensity. Challenge yourself during the time you have available.
4) Vary workout types, and intensity. (But find things you enjoy!)
In addition to not having a lot of time, busy people are often exhausted, or overwhelmed. This can deplete your motivation, or you just get tired more easily.
One solution is to have a lot of different workouts available, to keep things interesting. I love to jump rope. But it’s not always possible; I need a space where I won’t be disturbed (my worst nightmare is hitting an unsuspecting bystander with my rope!). I can’t find that near where I work in New York.
Fortunately, I also love lots of other things. I can always go for a run, as long as I have appropriate clothes with me. Or, I can go to the gym and lift weights.
Or maybe I know I lifted weights yesterday, and I have time for a moderate workout today, but I may not have time again for a couple more days. In that case, I’ll do another hard workout that emphasizes some other groups of muscles, so that I can get some work in and recover in the following days.
Have workouts ready for those days when you’re not feeling the energy, or when you’re tired because you were just on a plane for eight hours, for example. Let’s say I can’t find a good jump rope spot, and I go for a run. If I’m tired, I can take an easy 3 miles, or I can do a 7- or 8-mile run with lots of hills, if I want a challenge.
If I don’t feel like doing a steady run at all, I’ll find a hill and run intervals on it. Intervals are much more entertaining than long, slow distance runs.
Swimming is a go-to workout for me when I don’t feel like I can sustain an intense workout, though if I change my mind, I swim one fast lap, and then a slow one, until I get tired out.
In general, interval training is a key type of workout that will be very helpful in staying flexible. Just do any workout you like, but break it up into short periods of high and low intensity. You need to do enough to get your heart rate up, but intervals allow you to get a great workout in as little as 20 minutes.
Emotionally, you also have to accept that some days you won’t be able to do everything you want to. That’s a big part of this, too. The important thing is to go out and do at least some work, and feel good about that.
5) Get organized
Organization is key for being able to take advantage of whatever circumstances present themselves. You should be able to grab your gym bag, and go.
At all times, my gym bag contains:
- A set of clean clothes (in a plastic bag for protection)
- Running shoes, sweatbands, and my iPhone armband
- Swim gear, including goggles, a swimsuit, and flipflops
- Other useful miscellany, including a padlock and a snack
- My workout journal and a pen (also in a plastic bag)
I bought a mesh backpack to keep all this stuff in, which helps all my sweaty stuff dry out when it’s in there.
I also keep some bike gear, like a very small pump and headlamp, in my work bag with my laptop.
Lastly, I have a workout journal, which I’ll write about in a followup post. I keep a small workout calendar in there, and I also have a section to keep track of my progress in the weight room.
The journal gets you a few things. It does give you motivation to stay on track, though for me, it also has the opposite function: it reminds me of all the good work I’ve done, so I don’t get too discouraged if I can’t get out for a few days.
It also helps me keep all my different exercises in balance, and when I’m in the weight room, it saves a lot of time otherwise spent trying to remember what I did the last time I was there a few days ago.