You have established an exercise routine that requires you to work out 60 minutes a day. Nice job, champ!
Most of the time, you can stick to this routine.
But what do you do when you don’t have an hour to train?
Maybe you have extra work to do. Maybe you are traveling. Maybe children’s activities take up more of your day than usual.
Whatever the reason, you’ll likely find yourself in situations where you can’t stick to your usual 60-minute (or 45-minute) workout routine and only have 30, 20, or just 15 minutes to do some exercice.
What should you do?
do something rather than nothing
Behavioral scientist Michelle Segar works with people to develop healthy eating and exercise habits. In our podcast interview with her, she said perfectionism is one thing that keeps people from exercising regularly. They engage in all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to exercise: “Well, if I can’t do my full 60-minute workout, then it’s not worth doing any exercise at all!”
The reality is that the benefits of exercise accumulate over time and everything physical activity is good for your health, whether it is 15 minutes or 60 minutes. In reality, to research discovered that a few minutes of vigorous physical activity a day reduces your risk of cancer death by about 40% and your risk of cardiovascular death by almost 50%!
Not only will the health benefits of exercise add up in the long run, but a short burst of activity will immediately improve your mood and stress levels.
Plus, a workout, no matter how short, keeps you consistent with the exercise, building the habit of physical activity into your life. The more you solidify this habit, the more you are sure to enjoy the many benefits of physical activity for years and decades to come.
So get out of your head once and for all that it’s not worth exercising if you can’t do a full workout.
When it comes to moving your body, something is always better than nothing, even if it’s only 15 minutes of something.
Use your constraints as an opportunity to be a MacGyver drill
Instead of being frustrated with only having 15 minutes to practice, take the opportunity to participate in the art of improvisation. Have fun with the creativity that arises when your back is against the wall. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.
For me, this is the most useful change in mentality. It’s going from being frustrated that my ideal exercise plans have been ruined to becoming playful about what I can still do to move my body in a limited amount of time.
Be a MacGyver drill!
Focus on training density
If you don’t have time for your regular workout, my dumbbell trainer, Matt Reynolds, recommends focusing on maximizing the “density” of your workout. This means doing as much work as possible in the time you have.
You can make your 15 minute (or 10 or 20 minute) workout dense in all sorts of ways:
Do a series of AMRAPs. Let’s say you were to do 3 sets of 5 on the squat, 3 sets of 5 on the bench press, and 3 sets of 5 on the deadlift. Well, if you only have 15 minutes, you don’t have time for all those reps.
Instead of doing 3 sets of 5 on each lift, do one set for as many reps as possible (AMRAP). So you would do one set of squats for as many reps as possible, one set of bench presses for as many reps as possible, and one set of deadlifts for as many reps as possible.
You may need to reduce the weight slightly, but that’s okay. The goal is to do as much work as possible in the short time you have. With this suggestion, and all the others, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Do supersets. Another way to add density to your workout is to do supersets.
Supersets are when you perform two different exercises one after the other. When you do supersets, you want to combine exercises that work different muscles. This allows one muscle group to recover while you work the other.
A superset might combine something like bicep curls and tricep dips. But since we’re trying to get the most bang for our buck here, do those that involve compound exercises that work more than one muscle group. For example, you can combine a lower body exercise, like the squat, with an upper body exercise, like the shoulder press. Or you can pair a pushing exercise, like the push-up, with a pulling exercise, like the pull-up.
With a superset, you perform the exercises back to back, then rest between supersets. While the standard rest interval between weightlifting sets is around 2 minutes, you can get away with taking a shorter rest when doing supersets because the first muscle group you worked has already rested while you performed the second exercise in the pair. . If you’re really short on time, go for the whole thing and skip the rest entirely between sets.
Do a bodyweight prisoner workout. If you don’t have access to weights during your abbreviated training window, try doing a prisoner-style bodyweight workout. They require no equipment, can be done in 15-20 minutes, and leave your body very tired.
One of my favorite bodyweight workouts to do when I’m pressed for time or on vacation is CrossFit’s Cindy WOD.
Set yourself a time limit for training. It may take 10, 15 or 20 minutes. Then, do as many rounds as possible of the following:
- 5 pull-ups
- 10 push-ups
- 15 overhead squats
Simply repeat this sequence as many times as you can until your timer goes off. There is no rest between sets or rounds unless you are so tired you have to stop. Cindy will burn calories and send your heart rate soaring. It’s brutal, but you get a lot of work!
Do HIIT. HIIT alternates periods of very intense exercise with periods of rest. This is perfect for small time windows; in fact, you can’t do HIIT any other way (it’s impossible to sustain the total effort it requires over a longer period of time).
You can do HIIT with bodyweight exercises or a kettlebell, or on a treadmill, elliptical machine, or bicycle. Anything that gets your heart rate up. Choose the modality you prefer.
When doing HIIT as part of your anaerobic training, you should follow the guidelines we’ve laid out here, which start beginners with a 1:5 work to rest ratio. But for this kind of ad hoc, impromptu workout, maximize your work density and time-to-sweat ratio by doing your best for a minute, then resting for a minute. Repeat these intervals for as long as your schedule allows.
The above should get you thinking about ways to add more density to your workouts. Experiment and use what works for you.
If you don’t have time for the kind of intense workout that produces sweat (and then wash that sweat off with a post-workout shower), just take a walk. Even a short walk is incredibly good for your physical and mental health. If you want to increase the intensity slightly, put on a weighted backpack or carry it heavy. But a standard walk is fine too.
Doing any type of walk will show you that you are engaged in daily physical activity. It’s a way to reinforce your physical identity. Exercise is just something you do. It’s part of who you are!
You’ll keep that momentum going until your next full workout.
Remember, doing something is always better than doing nothing!