Sometimes it’s hard to find the time (and energy) to work out. And there's something about sitting at a desk all day that makes me feel even less motivated. Sure, I walk to and from the subway and climb my friends’ fifth-floor walk-ups, but after nine desk-bound hours (and more snacks than I’d care to admit), it feels impossible to make it to the gym. Plus, once I clock out for the day, I have errands to do, chores to complete, and a family wanting my attention. It’s just not possible to do an hourlong spin workout in my living room on a fancy bike I can’t afford before work or fit in an evening yoga class with my co-workers.
So, how can we balance all the demands of work and life while also achieving and maintaining our exercise goals? I asked a few fitness experts that very question. Shockingly, their answers were not as daunting as I expected. It is possible to get fitter and active without needing to be a workout fiend or even set foot in a gym.
Keep reading for our favorite gym-free tips that will help you squeeze in some exercise and tone up without needing to overhaul your life.
Set a Timer on Your Phone
“Use it to alert yourself to stand up and move every hour,” says Garner. “Over time, your body adapts to the movement pattern you spend the most time in—so it is important to reset your posture. Stand up, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down, and brace your abs.” Whether you get up and walk around the office or your home for five minutes, do 50 jumping jacks, or use the edge of your chair for triceps dips, challenge yourself to get moving once an hour for 3–5 minutes. You’ll not only get your heart pumping and your muscles moving, but you’ll give your metabolism a quick boost and return to your desk refreshed and refocused, too.
Sneak It In
“I am a firm believer in beginning where you are, and you don’t do yourself any favors by trying to go from doing no exercise to doing all of the exercises. The key is to start small,” advises Shelton. “Figure out what is attainable and what you can effortlessly fit into your daily routine.”
Start by pairing a chore or sedentary activity with a burst of movement or a strength exercise. For example, pace while on a conference call. Perform a wall sit while your coffee is brewing, Keep your legs, glutes, and core tight and your thighs parallel to the floor. Start with just 30 seconds, and work up to several minutes. Try doing squats or calf raises while you brush your teeth. Make a game of trying to stealthily sneak in as many exercises as you can during your normal daily life routine.
“Finding small ways to incorporate movement into your routine is the best way to begin a habit of movement that will be more likely to turn into you doing more in the long run,” says Shelton. “Start simple and small, and celebrate yourself along the way!”
Fix Your Desk Chair
“Sitting all day can affect your ability to move and [can] even cause pain,” warns Garner. Keeping your feet flat allows the ankles to stay stretched. Plus, it’s not doing any favors for your metabolism, posture, energy, or muscle strength. Consider swapping out your office chair for a large exercise ball (stability ball). Sitting on one requires you to engage your core, so you will strengthen your abs and back and improve your posture while you work. And research shows you’ll burn as many calories as you would at a standing desk.
Take a Post-Lunch Walk
“After you finish your lunch, take a brisk walk for five to 30 minutes (depending on your schedule),” says Garner. “Not only will this help you to move more throughout the day, but it will also aid in digestion and boost your energy.” Perhaps you can even knock a few errands off your list and complete them on foot.
Take the Stairs
“Long periods of sitting make your glutes stop firing as they should,” explains Garner. “This can lead to multiple issues, but most noticeable is lower-back pain. Get your glutes going, and take the stairs. This is a great way to train your legs and keep those calories burning throughout the day.” If you work from home, consider walking or running up and down the stairs a few times once an hour.
To challenge your body in different ways, mix up how you take the stairs. Alternate taking the steps one at a time quickly, then skipping every other one as you walk up them more slowly.
“Keeping yourself properly hydrated will not only aid in fat loss, but it will also help to keep your energy levels up from a day of sitting,” says Garner. “Get yourself a bottle to track your levels, as you’re probably not drinking nearly as much water as you thought. This also gives you another reason to get up and move to fill up your bottle throughout the day.” Plus, dehydration can cause your metabolism to be sluggish and can make you hungrier. Arm yourself against the afternoon craving for a sugary granola bar by keeping your body hydrated and happy.
Try Short, High-Intensity Workouts
When your schedule is jam-packed, or you just can’t imagine mustering the energy and motivation for a long workout, there’s good news on the exercise front. You can complete a workout in less time than a single commercial break of the show you hope to have time for tonight. Shelton recommends Tabata workouts, a specific type of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that only takes four minutes. “You can get in a quick and intense workout in four minutes’ time! For example, 20 seconds of squat jumps, followed by 10 seconds of rest, followed by 20 seconds of push-ups, and 10 seconds of rest,” explains Shelton. “You can sub in any type of exercises you want and do a total of eight rounds and get that heart rate up after only four minutes of work!”
Examples of equipment-free exercises that work well for Tabata workouts include squats, jumping jacks, forward and reverse lunges, mountain climbers, jogging in place, push-ups, jump squats, lateral lunges, dips, planks, and other core exercises.
Exercise in the Morning
If your workout is the first thing on your agenda for the day, it’s less likely that something will come up and derail your plans. Let’s face it, life can be unpredictable, and even with the best of intentions, things come up between planning to go to a 7 p.m. spinning class and the said class. When you’re trying to establish a new exercise habit, consider lacing up your sneakers as the sun rises. But don’t force it. Shelton says that, while mornings are great for some people, they’re not ideal for all of us. “If you are truly not a morning person, trying to make yourself get up to work out is a tall order,” she says. “My advice is to choose the time of day that you are most prone to find time for movement.”
Get Enough Sleep
You won’t have the energy or motivation to exercise if you’re exhausted. Set yourself up for success by practicing good sleep hygiene. “It is of utmost importance to prioritize your sleep and aim to go to bed at the same time or at least around the same time every night,” says Shelton. “The rule of thumb is to aim for 7–8 hours of quality sleep.” If that seems like a big jump from where you’re landing now, Shelton encourages you to examine your technology and screen habits. “Blue light has been said to create disruption to our sleep patterns,” she explains. “Try shutting things (phone, TV, computer) down 30 minutes to an hour before snoozing.”
Turn to Fitness Influencers for Motivation
We’ve all probably scrolled Instagram and seen inspiring images of our friends or fitness influencers performing a perfect yoga headstand, completing a marathon, or besting their previous squat weight. These impressive feats can be motivating, particularly when they are paired with personal stories of triumph and growth. If you find yourself spurred to get in your own workout to avoid FOMO, then, by all means, fill your feed with all your favorite fit friends and influencers.
But Shelton recommends exercising caution here. “I believe there is a fine line between looking to others for motivation and trying to do exactly what someone else is doing in hopes of obtaining it,” says Shelton. “You can look to others for inspiration, but you must do and settle into what works best for you uniquely and beware of the comparison trap.” And if you find that the advanced moves and fitness achievements of the pros make you feel inadequate or defeated before you even begin, mute or unfollow them. Remember, you are where you are in your journey, and you are impressive, beautiful, and more than enough exactly where you are. Exercise should build your confidence—never break you down.
Pick Activities You Enjoy
Even though the word “work” is front and center in the word “workout,” your exercise routine doesn’t have to be something you dread. “I feel it’s best to start with doing exercises you gravitate to first,” shares Shelton. “This will help you stay consistent. Find something that really works for you, and build and grow into it slowly.” Make sure to keep it fun and playful—in fact, if you have kids, consider involving them and being active together. Either way, the goal is to keep a mindset of enjoyment.
Try Song-Length Workouts
“I think this is a very fun way to get in some movement! Choose one of your favorite activities, and do it for the length of one of your favorite songs,” suggests Shelton. The busy, fit trainer even follows this tip in her own life. “I have a weighted hula hoop that I love using when I want to switch up my cardio,” she says. “I will usually start by choosing one song and keep going for several more!” Whether you jog in place, dance, do jumping jacks, or perform walking lunges around your living room, queue up your favorite Spotify channel, and try to move throughout a whole song. Maybe, like Shelton, you’ll have so much fun that you’ll be three or four songs deep before you even notice you haven’t stopped.
Know Your Why
Shelton says this last one may pack the mightiest punch of them all. She encourages coming up with concrete reasons why exercising is important to you personally and establishing what you want to achieve. “It helps to really lock into this because when life happens, or you don’t feel like working out, you can always go back to your why for motivation,” says Shelton. “Your health and fitness journey is uniquely your own, and the more you are aligned with its purpose, the more likely you are to show up for it continually.”
Beers EA, Roemmich JN, Epstein LH, Horvath PJ. (2008). Increasing Passive Energy Expenditure During Clerical Work. European Journal of Applied Physiology.103(3):353-60.