Well-Being//

16 Strategies to Make Your Workout More Efficient When You’re Short on Time

These tips will help you get your sweat on, even if you have a crazy busy schedule.

Courtesy of Chutima Chaochaiya / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Chutima Chaochaiya / Shutterstock

When you don’t have enough time for your usual exercise regimen, the activity that usually helps you cope with stress and anxiety can become a stressor. Thankfully, it’s the quality of your workouts that matters most, not necessarily the duration of each session.  

We asked members of the Thrive community to share the strategies they use to make their workouts more efficient when they’re short on time. Some make physical modifications, while others adjust their mindsets — either way, they’re getting out there, even when they’re on the clock. And you should, too. 

Incorporate movement into your workday

“I take a brisk walk during each of my 15-minute breaks, which helps me get more steps in. I do 20 squats and 10 push-ups when I get up for a restroom break or to fill my water. I also do random yoga poses like downward dog, warrior pose, or tree pose throughout the day when I feel the need to get up from my computer, stretch, and refresh.”

—Johanna Goodfellow, social work, Belleville, Ontario 

Let music guide the intensity 

“Pick an exercise — anything from using your bodyweight, like push ups or jump squats, to weight training with dumbbells or cable machines, and pick a favorite song. Do as many reps as possible, only resting for 10 seconds at most. Then modify if needed to make the exercise easier — do push ups on knees, or decrease weight, for example — and keep at it until the song ends. This is such a killer workout. Pick four or five exercises, four or five of your favorite songs, and you will feel both successful and sore in under 30 minutes!”

—Kelly Mesler, mindfulness and emotional intelligence training, New York, NY

Break your session into bite-sized bits

“Take your current fitness routine and create 10-minute ‘bite sized’ portions. This will give you an opportunity to combine sections of your workout based on how much time you have. It’s a great way to maximize your energy output, and still feel that you’re keeping a very important promise you made to yourself: living a healthy and active lifestyle.”

—Trish Tonaj, speaker, author, and coach, Toronto, Ontario

Make modifications

“If there’s a day where I am limited on time, I’m not focusing on my strength program. I spend less time warming up on the treadmill, and use lighter sets with weights to warm up. Once I do that, I make sure to limit my time between sets. You see many people spend 60 minutes doing a workout they could have done in 30 minutes — if only they didn’t spend so much time messing around. Stop checking your messages, stop posting your gym selfies on Snap, and get to work. You’ll be amazed by how much you can get done in such little time if you’re focused on your workout. “

—James Philip, serial entrepreneur, Chicago IL

Pair your workout with your to-do list

“I combine my workout with my to-do list to make things as efficient as possible. I ‘commute’ with a brisk walk to my office that becomes an uphill aerobic walk home. Breathing in the fresh air first thing in the morning gets me focused and helps me plan my day. I enjoy the chirping of birds and the beauty of nature on my journey. I squeeze gym workouts in after I’ve dropped a parent off at the doctor’s office. Why sit in a doctor’s office when I can be doing something healthy for myself as well?”

—Linda Hardenstein, work-life integration coach, Central Coast, CA

Strap on some weights

“If I’m in a hurry to complete a workout, I wear leg and arm weights and do only one round instead of two or three. This gives me similar results — sometimes even better results — compared to doing a complete workout without weights.”

—Aimee Tariq, health consultant, Orlando, Florida

Don’t combine screen time with sweat time

“Put the phone away. When I walk into the gym, I can’t help but notice the people who are trying to combine screen time with exercise time. What’s really happening is that they’re not getting the most of either experience. Mental toughness is one of the key components of making serious gains, and your mind needs to be focused exclusively on getting that next rep, not on how many likes your post received since you last checked.” 

—Pete Hinkey, design engineer, Rifton, NY

Focus on your mind-body connection

“For me, exercise is not just going through the motions. In whatever time I have reserved for a workout, I focus intently on the specific muscle I’m exercising. Form takes precedence over anything. Slow and controlled movements paired with mind-body connection is how I walk out of each workout feeling accomplished, even if I only have 15 minutes.” 

—Melissa Muncy, content marketing, San Francisco, CA

Have patience with your progress

“I use nerd fitness workouts. They rarely last longer than 30 minutes, and I do them three times a week. The best thing is that you start at your fitness level and progress to the next level by completing ‘boss battles’ at your own pace. When I started, I struggled with modified push ups. Now, I can do over 10 regular push ups and one-and-a-half pull ups — still a work in progress!”

—Laura Krippner, student health coach, Cheshire, UK

Set aside “me time”

“I am a new working mom and almost every minute of my day is accounted for, so finding time to work out is a huge challenge. I’ve adopted what I call the ‘30 minute swap.’ I now go to bed 30 minutes earlier so I can get up 30 minutes earlier. This way, I have time before anyone wakes up that is just for me, which I use to work out.” 

—Lindsey Benoit O’Connell, editor, New York, NY 

Fully commit, even in a time crunch

“One of the best ways I’ve saved time at the gym is with intention and commitment. If you decide to go to the gym, work out, or take a class, you need to go into it with the intention and commitment to get the maximum results in the alloted time. Some of my best workouts have only been 20 minutes long because once I set the intention to exercise, I committed to putting in the most effort I could in that time. On other occasions, I set the intention of spending an hour working out, but my commitment was not there, and I wasted that hour. Exercising has the best ROI when you realize that what you put in is what you’ll get out.” 

—Tony Alcindor, PR and marketing specialist, New York, NY

Make a point of being consistent

“I’m all about ‘anything is better than nothing’ when it comes to exercising with a busy schedule. After all, consistency is more effective than a single long training sesh each week. So I cycle to work and take the stairs every chance I get. I’m a yoga teacher, but find it hard to get a decent home practice in, so I try to start the day — about five times each week — with at least 10 minutes of stretching and poses. I also love my HIIT sessions. Whether it’s 12, 15, or 20 minutes, I feel I’ve had a great full body workout with some serious cardio. I always end with some stretching, too.”

—Gillian Kennedy, holistic health, nutrition, and lifestyle coach, Barcelona, Spain

Focus on the exercises that make you feel good

“When I’m short on time, I condense my yoga time to five minutes so I can perform sun salutations and planks. If done correctly, these exercises will stretch every muscle in your body and will help you focus on the things that matter most to you.”

—Vinutha Narayan, global head of strategic programs, San Francisco, CA 

Let go of what a workout “should be”

“On the crazy days when a gym session or yoga class is simply not in the cards, I let go of what a ‘workout’ should be, and find creative ways to get my heart rate up. I’ll run up and down the stairs a couple of times between meetings, drop down for a few push-ups or a plank — maybe with a kiddo or a cat on my back! — or do some lunges or leg lifts while I do my hair in the morning. Getting my body moving — even just for a few minutes — changes my outlook for the rest of the day, and it’s so worth it!”

—Kalia Garrido, founder, Denver, CO

Prioritize exercises that engage multiple muscle groups

“Exercise is a priority for me, so I have protected time in my weekly schedule to dedicate to my workouts. Occasionally, though, my plan does fall through, so I have to be strategic about how I use my time at the gym. Much of my exercise involves bodybuilding, which includes a variety of compound and isolation movements. If I’m running short on time, I prioritize the compound exercises, such as barbell squats, bench presses, and deadlifts because these engage multiple muscle groups.”

—Andrew Gobran, people operations, Minneapolis, MN

Use nature as your gym 

“I go to my local park and use it as a gym. I create my own 30-minute full-body circuit training course using park benches for push-ups and dips, ledges for squats and lunges, and the grassy interior for sprints, abs, core work, and stretching. It’s like HIIT in nature!”

—Treva Brandon Scharf, life coach and fitness professional, Beverly Hills, CA

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