Exercise for Busy People

Finding time to work out when you have a full schedule is tough. You get home at the end of a long day and the last thing you want to do is go to the gym. It feels impossible to exercise when you leave home before sunrise and come back after sunset. You’ve been focused all day and you’re exhausted when the day ends; the thought of doing anything besides sitting on the couch and zoning out with trashy TV is too overwhelming to contemplate. I’ve spent enough time sleep deprived and overworked to know this situation backwards and forwards.

Over the years my exercise routines have changed a lot. When I worked as a personal trainer and basically lived in the gym, I worked out 90 minutes a day at least 5 days a week. On top of that, I was playing pick up basketball, soccer, softball and any other sport I could get involved with. When I started med school, my routines changed a little bit, but I was still getting to the gym 3-4 days a week and playing basketball at least once a week. Then I started my clinical rotations. My schedule became chaotic as I started getting up earlier and working later than I ever had before. I fell off the wagon completely. I’d go weeks between workouts and when I finally got to the gym, I was so out of shape that I’d be sore for 6 days after each workout.

My problem is that I was still working out the same way as when I had a wide open schedule. It was only after I adapted my routine to fit my limited time that exercise became a sustainable part of life again. I spent a lot of time researching how to maximize efficiency in coming up with my workout plan for busy people. This article from Men’s Journal is an awesome first person account of a guy who learned how to stop wasting time in the gym. Mark Rippletoe’s Starting Strength is a barbell training bible that brought 5×5 workouts to a broader audience. The 4 Hour Body inspired me to keep track of my progress and Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint Fitness taught me about the importance of play.

With the help of these influences, I’ve been able to develop a sustainable workout plan with about an hour a week of actual exercise that keeps me sane. It works for both the guy who wants to get bigger and stronger as well as the woman who wants to stay lean. Here are the principles I focus on:

  • Strength training should be heavy and focus on big muscle groups
  • Sprinting at high intensity causes growth hormone release that keeps you lean
  • Don’t waste time on exercises that have no metabolic benefit like bicep curls and riding the exercise bike
  • Keep track of how much you’re lifting and add weight each workout (provided you completed all the reps last time)

I work out twice a week on average, never for more than 30 minutes at a time, and usually for about 20.

  • Workout A: squats and weighted pullups, each 4 sets of 5 reps, with 90-120 seconds rest between sets
  • Workout B: deadlifts and bench press, each 4 sets of 5 reps, rest as above
  • Every other week, I do 10 sprints of 20-30 seconds as fast as I can, with about 90 seconds between sprints

That’s it. Literally. I don’t do anything else unless I’m on vacation or happen to be working a normal schedule, which is exceedingly rare. And I’ve found that it’s about 90% as successful in keeping me strong and lean as my hours in the gym used to. There are also tons of ways to vary this workout when/if you get bored, which is a topic for another post. The point is that having a limited schedule doesn’t mean you’re doomed to watch your muscles atrophy and your pants get tighter.

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