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.
3. Find Some Form Of External Accountability
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.
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.
- 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.