Too busy to exercise? Try intermittent workouts

Coach Arvind
October 06,2022

“I start work really early and finish late at night. I just don’t have the time.”

“Where will I find 45 minutes or 1 hour to exercise every day? I’m way too busy”

“I’m too tired to go for a walk after dinner, I just want to chill and unwind in front of the TV.”

Does this sound familiar, perhaps you say something along these lines when anyone asks about your exercise habits? These might not just be excuses. It’s true that many of us work long hours and often don’t get enough sleep. Our days are always busy and we can’t seem to fit in the time to get an hour of exercise on a regular basis.

Why is exercise important?

When we were younger, our bodies were more resilient and we didn’t feel the effect of late night study sessions or parties, or working till the early hours of the morning, at least not much. I personally used to take it for granted that there wasn’t much that a good night’s sleep couldn’t fix. I didn’t really think about being in shape, getting stronger and including exercise as part of my daily routine.

As we grow older however, the aches and niggles get worse as our muscles and joints get stiff from all the time we spend sitting and our body does not bounce back from those late nights as quickly. If we aren’t in good shape physically or are overweight, things will just get worse and we may eventually end up developing severe health issues.

Even if we do manage to fit in an occasional session of exercise on good days, or perhaps play a sport over the weekend, this pales in comparison to the length of time that we are spending sitting in our chairs. And all that sitting is doing real damage to our bodies.

The 30-60 minutes of activity will never win against the 12-16 hours of sitting we do every day. It’s no surprise that the latest health warning is “Sitting is the new smoking”.

This is where being fit can make a big difference to your daily life. If you are here reading this article, you are probably already looking to get healthier and fitter, and know how important regular exercise is for you.Here are some of the main benefits of regular exercise:

  • Regular movement and exercise help keep your joints mobile and flexible, and reduce the risk of injury.
  • It can help you lose weight, get fitter and get stronger.
  • It can help prevent a host of common but serious health issues including heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancers and depression.
  • Exercise also has many emotional benefits, promoting self-confidence as your strength and stamina improve.

It’s clearly worth figuring out how to address this problem of making some time for exercise in your packed day. And it has to be a solution that works for you.

Try Intermittent Workouts

Many of us think of exercise as something that we always need to set aside 45-60 minutes for. This does not have to be the case. You’re setting the bar too high, and this means you’re also more likely to fail.

How about you set the bar very low instead? Start very small: Can you spare 5 minutes? If your answer is ‘Of course’, then you’ve set the right goal. This might sound like the opposite of what you may have expected, but it really works. Start with a small goal that is easily doable for you and increase it in small increments. If you can do 5 minutes at 9 am, how about another 5 minutes at 10 am? And so on, till you manage 5 minutes every hour for 8 hours in a day.

Before you know it, you’ll have ‘stolen’ 40 minutes (5 minutes per hour for 8 hours) from your busy day.

That’s what we mean by intermittent exercise: Small and regular doses of exercises sprinkled over your day.

Think of them as mini-exercise sessions that you perform at intervals throughout the day.

Remember what I mentioned earlier, i.e. that we should be taking breaks from our desks during the day? If you intersperse your day with intermittent workouts during these breaks, it’s a win-win: you get your breaks and you get your exercise in too!

Intermittent workouts can help you incorporate small doses of exercises as you go through your day, and most importantly, without disrupting your schedule and without exhausting yourself. In fact, intermittent exercise will leave you energised and help you focus better at work.

What do you get out of it?

Benefit 1: You create time

You thought you didn’t have time to exercise? Well, you can plan short breaks through your day to magically fit in these mini-workouts and by the end of the day, you will realize that you made the time ☺.

Benefit 2: Lesser tiredness

Since the exercises are done in short bursts, you can do these without exhausting yourself. You can get on with your day after the short break with even more energy and focus.

Benefit 3: Your body gets to ‘de-stress’ and energize itself

Including planned intermittent workouts during a busy day will help you reset, both mentally and physically. The exercise will help reduce levels of stress hormones in the body and stimulate the release of endorphins – chemicals in the brain that are responsible for the so-called “runner’s high”, which leaves us feeling energetic and optimistic.

Benefit 4: Reduced time at your desk

Sitting hunched over your laptop for hours on end can result in stiff joints. That crick in the neck, the pain in the lower back and the burning eyes? Give them a break. It’s important to keep your joints mobile and active, and what better way to find the time to do this than include it in your daily calendar as a regular part of your day.

Benefit 5: You’ll end up eating better

You know that big breakfast that you would normally treat yourself to after a morning run because you thought you earned it? You may not feel as tempted to treat yourself because your activity bursts are much shorter.

And here’s a surprise: if you are tempted to snack, it’s often emotional hunger (often from stress) and not real physical hunger.

A short intermittent exercise session to destress will help that ‘I must snack’ feeling pass.

I often find that if I do a set of push-ups or squats instead, I find it easier to resist the treat because exercise helps improve my mood. Try it out yourself and see if it works for you.

Benefit 6: You’ll learn to move better

If you’ve worked out regularly before, you’ll know that you don’t move with good form when you’re tired. With intermittent workouts, you can maintain high-quality movement for every exercise because you will not be training to exhaustion during those short breaks. This means that your muscles will learn to perform the exercises correctly and your technique will automatically improve.

Benefit 7: You’ll get more exercise

Plan well and by the end of the day, you can easily fit in 30-45 minutes of exercise (and more). Where you thought you didn’t have the time earlier, you’ve managed to fit in a healthy dose of exercise into your busy day.

In our coaching programme, we guide people to make time in this way and use that time to do something they enjoy while also energizing them, freeing up some mental space and undoing the effects of sitting.

Sample intermittent workout plans to get you started

Here is a sample plan to get you started. Change the number of repetitions and difficulty level (with or without weights) based on your fitness level, and time based on your calendar. Pick whichever combinations work for you.

How to plan your workouts

You can also plan your own workouts by selecting the combination of moves and triggers that work best for you. Here’s what you need to do to draw up your own workout plan.

Step 1:Select a few exercises/stretches based on your fitness levels

Focus on moves that do not need much warm-up. You can pick a combination of different exercises to perform over the day, or just stick to one particular move or set of moves. The Surya Namaskar is a great example of a move that you can do in any situation. You can add weights by keeping a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells handy, if you know how to use them safely.

Step 2:Pick the triggers that work for you.

One example is to do it based on time. For example, set an alarm at the beginning of each hour, i.e. at 9 am, 10 am, 11 am and so on. Or based on an action (see examples in the table above).

Step 3:Decide the number of repetitions or the time for which you will perform the moves.

Step 4:Do the exercises based on your trigger.

Can intermittent workouts replace a more focused and traditional workout session or sports activity?

It depends on your goal. Intermittent workouts can work very well in the following situations:

  • You’re looking to make time to move and want to fit in some exercise in your busy schedule.
  • You want general fitness, i.e. keeping yourself active and your joints mobile, and improving your endurance.
  • You want more activity in your day to lose weight.
  • You want to improve your performance on specific moves.

For me, it worked wonders on my push-ups.

I went from barely managing 1 push-up at a time, to being able to do more than 15 push-ups at a go, within a short period.

I started with 1 push up every one hour and slowly increased the number of push ups at each interval as I built strength. Each set took me less than a minute!

Only doing intermittent workouts are not the answer if you have goals like a long-distance run or for athlete-level performance. However, even seasoned athletes can benefit from adding intermittent workouts to their day.

The specific strength and endurance benefits of intermittent workouts will depend on your workout plan. The type of exercises you pick, the number of repetitions you perform and the time you spend on the workouts will determine what you can get out of them.

Intermittent workouts can be the perfect solution if you are looking to include exercise more regularly on a day-to-day basis.

Start slow. Start with short sessions. Build on your plan as you get into the routine. Small targets lead to small victories that can often trigger a positive spiral of behaviour. Here’s a final thought to ponder.

“Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” – Tao Te Ching

About the Author

Coach Arvind
Arvind is a qualified Personal Trainer, SFG-certified Kettlebell Instructor and a Nutrition Coach. Arvind knows that there is no one-size-fits all answer and is focused on helping people find the solutions that work for them. He frowns at fad diets as they do more harm than good.

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