When most people are trying to improve their fitness habits, one of the most common obstacles is lack of time.
This is completely normal, and to be expected – most of us have jobs, families, and social obligations that prevent us from spending hours at the gym each day.
However, this perception that it takes hours a day, or that we have to “live at the gym” to get in shape, can only compound the time scarcity problem, by making the goal seem insurmountable.
After all, even if someone glibly tells you, “We all have the same 24 hours in a day,” an hour every day may legitimately be too much of a commitment for you and your unique schedule.
It can feel impossible.
So, instead, I coach clients to re-frame exercise so that it takes up less temporal – and mental – space. Yes, it requires commitment, but not more than what you can give – especially if you’re willing to get creative.
But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the actual exercise requirements for health and for weight loss, to get a handle on what’s really needed to make improvements.
Physical Activity Guidelines
First of all, organizations like the American Heart Association and the CDC hold 150-300 total minutes of moderate exercise per week as the standard for a healthy lifestyle. This could be something as simple as a brisk 30-minute walk every weekday.
However, if you’re short on time, you can make the most of your minutes by condensing the 150 minutes into 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. This means that, instead of going for a walk, maybe you’re going for three 25-minute runs per week, or something similar.
The AHA points out that, ideally, you’re doing a combination of these two types of exercise (moderate and vigorous), and spreading your minutes throughout the week.
Furthermore, the AHA recommends getting in at least two strength training sessions per week, and points out that benefits could be increased by aiming for the high end (300 minutes), instead of the low end (150).
But when it comes to weight loss specifically, we may need to move the needle even further, and start with a baseline of 250 minutes per week instead of 150. This is because there is what’s called a “dose-response relationship” between exercise and weight (as well as other health factors, like blood pressure). In plain English, this means that more exercise equals more results.
Is there a curve of diminishing returns? Of course. But the best evidence we have right now suggests that that curve may be further away than we think – multiple hours a day, for example, may be beyond what is actually effective. But it’s hard to wonder how much is too much if you’re not exercising much at all.
So what does this mean? How do these numbers translate into real-life exercise prescriptions for average people who want to lose weight and get healthier?
250-420 minutes could be a 50-minute workout on every weekday, or an hour of exercise every day of the week.
So to go back to the idea of time scarcity, how do we make these recommendations fit with our over-scheduled lives?
Here are three ways to break down 250-420 minutes into daily goals that are achievable, realistic, and effective:
Use Intermittent Exercise
First of all, practice intermittent exercise. In other words, split up a 50-minute workout into several small blocks throughout the day – for example, a fast 15-minute workout in the morning, a brisk 10-minute walk at lunch, and then a 25-minute walk or jog or bike in the evening. If you did this every day Monday through Friday, you would accumulate 250 minutes with no problem.
If you wanted to aim for an hour every single day, you could increase your times a little by doing a 20-minute morning workout, a 10-minute midday walk, and a 30-minute evening activity like walking or biking.
You can split it up however you want, but the idea is to not pressure yourself into spending a full 60 minutes at the gym every time you go, if that’s not working for you!
This can be incredibly effective because of the mental load that lifestyle changes can exert on us. By making exercise shorter and more fun, it reduces the feeling of sacrifice and makes it more likely that we’ll continue (and not sabotage ourselves with spurious “rewards”!).
Lower Your Overall Intensity
Many people may recoil at the idea of 420 minutes of exercise per week, because – frankly – it sounds like too much. An hour of exercise a day has the possibility of being completely exhausting, right?
Not if you turn down the dial a little, and condense your vigorous workouts into just a few sessions a week. The rest of the time, your exercise and activity can be low-intensity or moderate – activities like walking, biking, hiking, or gardening.
I call this “informal exercise” – the kind of exercise you could do even if you were wearing normal clothes.
You’d be surprised that – by increasing your physical activity to an hour a day but keeping it relatively moderate most of the time – you will have more energy, instead of less.
Keep Your Vigorous Workouts Short
Finally, because vigorous exercise and strength training play important roles in weight management, they can’t be neglected. This kind of training is what I call “formal exercise” – the kind of exercise for which workout gear is pretty much compulsory.
I highly recommend following a weekly schedule for these vigorous workouts, so that they don’t get lost in the busy-ness of the week. It’s so easy for these sessions to get neglected and pile up with guilt and “should’s,” but I think this is largely because of the mental pressure that we put on ourselves to commit an hour every day.
Instead, just start with 25 minutes, three days a week. Do the natural rhythm of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the same time each time (ideally as quickly as you can get them out of the way each day), and watch the magic happen as your hard work – and exercise minutes – accumulate over time.
But… is intermittent exercise as effective as continuous exercise?
The short answer is “No,” but – to be frank – it’s about 1000% more effective than not exercising at all, which is (realistically) the alternative for most busy people.
Because, let’s be honest – for most people reading this post, the choice isn’t between 60-minute workouts and intermittent workouts. It’s between not exercising, and exercising at all.
And if you’re going from not exercising consistently to accumulating 420 minutes of intermittent exercise per week, it will be a game changer for your health, fitness, and weight, especially when coupled with appropriate nutrition strategies for your goals.
After all, intermittent exercise is largely how I stay in shape as a personal trainer. Because of my client sessions and the demands of running a business, I don’t typically have more than 30 minutes at a time to “formally” exercise. I go to the gym every morning for about 20 minutes for my “vigorous” exercise, and then the rest of the day is split up with walk breaks and occasionally filming quick exercise demos for my YouTube channel.
The nice thing about a plan like this is that it is simultaneously realistic about the sheer amount of exercise that it actually takes to lose weight or otherwise improve your health, but it’s also realistic about your schedule and more flexible to fit your needs.
For example, during busy times, remember that you can always fall back to the 150-minute standard of health, even if you can’t hit the 250-minute recommendation for weight loss. For me personally, this means that I take a 30-minute walk every day, no matter – even if I can’t make it to the gym.
What do you think about intermittent exercise? How could it fit your schedule? How could it improve your fitness while making your life easier?
If you agree that making exercise more accessible, realistic, and achievable for the average person is important, share this post!