How to Fit Some Exercise into Your Busy Adult Life.

Hi, my name is Leah (aka @Ella_Arcoleo), and I’ve been cramming exercise into my schedule pretty consistently for around a decade, after a childhood of being an asthmatic shut-in and an adolescent who opted for “walking club” as a phys ed class. At the age of 23, I forced myself to start exercising after I began to develop a double chin; I’ve been working out regularly ever since.

I’m about to ramble on, but let’s hit the key points right now: 

  1. Do something that makes you sweat for about 30 minutes 2-3 times a week. 
  2. Do some sort of resistance-based program 2-3 times a week. 
  3. Do some other stuff if you want. 

Some less-specific, still important guidelines: 

  • Make exercise convenient. 
  • Baby steps if you need them. 
  • Listen to your body. 
  • Try to keep a schedule, but if you break it, don’t beat yourself up. 
  • If there’s something that you like to do, do it (but that might not be the case). 

Also important: I am not a medically-licensed anything. I don’t even have a driver’s license. Talk to a doctor about exercise stuff, especially if you have any pre-existing conditions. My advice is mostly suited to folks in their 20s and 30s; it would be different for an 80-year-old (two words: water aerobics).

Not that important, but since I’m a woman talking about body stuff, it might come up: I am not the most fit person in the world, and I still can’t do a body weight pull-up (my push-up count isn’t that stellar either, but whatever). I am a  curvy size 12. My BMI is 28.7, which makes me “overweight” and close to obese, but I’m also really muscular and BMI is almost completely bullshit. I like how I look, feel good in my body, and I can squat more than my body weight. My cholesterol and blood pressure and all kind of blood tests look good, which is a little amazing because all of my mom’s family have horrible heart disease (including a grandparent who died of a heart attack at 38) and my dad’s family tend toward being morbidly obese/diabetic. Working out is probably a big part of that. So no body-snarking. I have too much self-esteem to put up with that shit.

Moving on! Let’s go through the guidelines first:

Make exercise convenient. I once belonged to a really cool gym that wasn’t close to my apartment or my workplace. It had a boxing ring! The teachers were excellent! R. Kelly worked out there! I saw Justin Timberlake there once! But still, I didn’t go as much as I should. My current gym isn’t nearly as big, doesn’t have a sauna, and gets really busy, but it’s a 10-minute walk from my apartment, and I go there all the time. So if you’re figuring out where to work out, look for places that are easy to get to (near your home, near your workplace, or on the route between the two). 

If you prefer the convenience of working out outside or at home, there’s still some prep that you need to do. First off: figure out what you realistically can do. If you want to run walk or bike outside for your cardio, will you do that outside in February? Do you have a backup plan if you won’t? If your backup plan is a Tae-Bo video and you live in an upstairs apartment, is there a time when you can spirit-bond with Billy Blanks without making your downstairs neighbors want to kill you? Will you be doing body weight resistance training, or can you afford/do you have room for a TRX system or some kettle bells or an entire squat rack in our home? When will you work out, if you don’t have to plan to go to a gym? It’s important to set a schedule at home; don’t let the trap of “I can do it any time” lead to “just one more cat video!”

Finally: make sure you have good workout shoes! And some decent workout clothes. You don’t need a closet full of fancy rags, but get something affordable in a technical fabric from Target or some other place. It will make you feel less gross when you sweat. If you can make exercise social, that’s great; either join a gym with friends or use a service like Fitocracy

Baby steps if you need them, or “Maybe don’t start by trying to run a couple of miles”. I like running! I probably shouldn’t run (reconstructed ankle), but I do it sometimes (because I am an idiot and do not follow my own advice from the next section). If you already run, and you like it, feel free to continue! That being said, if you haven’t worked out in a long while/ever, it may not be the best starting point. At least check out Couch to 5k, so you can ease into it. 

When I first decided to try to get fit at 23, I walked briskly around the UIUC campus 45 minutes a night while listening to an awesome mix tape on my walkman (yes, this was in the 2000s), and did this somewhat cheesy but excellent yoga for weight loss DVD in my apartment a couple times a week. It was great! And if that kind of routine works for you, awesome. You should probably vary the yoga DVD every couple of months to keep things fresh, but otherwise, roll with it. But if you’re looking for results, and your results plateau, you might have to move on from that.

Listen to your body. If you experience sharp pain while you are working out, stop and figure out what is going on. Don’t do the thing that is causing it! If, after you work out, you have some arthritic pain or joint pain, maybe don’t do the thing that caused it! This seems a little obvious to me, but if you are a bit more of an alpha/work through the pain/I have just discovered Crossfit person: injuring yourself now will keep you from working out more in the future! It is easier to prevent an injury than to treat it. If you have been injured in the past: be aware of it! Make smart choices about what kind of workouts you do. 

HOWEVER, major caveat: you should probably have some muscle pain the day after you do resistance work, especially when you start a new program. It might even hurt worse the 2nd day after. Muscle fatigue soreness feels different than “I have done something unpleasant to my knee” pain, but it’s hard to describe. You’ll learn. 

Try to keep a schedule, but if you break it, don’t beat yourself up. As in so much of life: Set a schedule! Try to keep to it! I always plan my exercise week on Saturday or Sunday; knowing my plan helps me keep it, but only looking at the next week helps keep me flexible. So, I’m going to a concert on Monday night, when I usually lift? Well, maybe I’ll get up early on Monday to lift in the morning instead of the evening. Maybe I’ll see if I have time before the concert, if I have time to shower after. Maybe I’ll do 20 minutes of cardio intervals at home, and lift on Tuesday instead.

If you get sick, or get busy, or just get lazy: that’s fine. It happens to everyone. It will not go on your permanent record! Just try to get back to it. 

If there’s something that you like to do, do it (but that might not be the case). Is there a cardio activity you like? Well, you’re probably more likely to keep at than if it’s something you hate. It’s a big more complicated with resistance training, because you want to work on a program and then move on, but if you hate free weights, TRX, kettlebells, resistance bands, and body weight exercises, but love power yoga? Do power yoga, but maybe try something else for a time. 

If all exercise feels like fresh hell to you: well, you should still really do something at least 4 times a week. Speaking of that… 

Do something that makes you sweat for about 30 minutes 2-3 times a week (or more!)

Lululemon says you should do something that makes you sweat once a day, but they also sell you $98 see-through yoga pants. 2-3 times a week is fine for most people. 

As for what to do: there is so much opinion about this, and a limited amount of rigorous research to back it up (though Gretchen Reynolds’ recent book does a pretty good job of covering some recent work). Running, walking, cycling, swimming, elliptical, stair machine, jump rope, body-weight squats, kettle bell swings: just make sure you’re not being leisurely about it. You need to get your heart rate up (I have a monitor, but they are spendy) and sweat. 

Intervals are great, because they get your heart rate up while giving you time to recover. Whatever cardio you’re doing: warm up for two minutes, go hard for 30 seconds, then stop/go at an easy pace for 60-90 seconds. Alternate this for 20 minutes, cool down for a couple of minutes. Over time, make it 1:1 hard:easy (so 30 seconds hard work/30 seconds easy or 60/60), and increase the time up to 30 minutes (more if you want, not necessary). 

You can also just run for 25 minutes, if you like that and it doesn’t hurt you. Again, studies say intervals are better, except when they say really hard steady-state cardio is better! Just doing something (with at least moderate intensity) is the important thing with cardio.

Do some sort of resistance-based program 2-3 times a week. I used the word “program” for a reason. Not to offend Crossfit WOD fans or the people who randomly do some machines at the gym, but I am a big fan of doing resistance training a certain way. Namely, find a systematic program, probably where you alternate a couple of full-body workouts for 4-8 weeks, stick to that program, and move on.  Doing the same exercises regularly for a period of time helps you increase strength and get better at those exercises, but your body will adapt after a couple of months and your progress will slow, so you should change things up (systematically!) every so often.

I am a huge fan of the New Rules of Lifting series. One of these books should give you 6-8 months of routines, a lot of good advice, and tips on how to redo the program if you want. If you want to do bodyweight exercises from home, You Are Your Own Gym is a good pick. There are books for TRX and for kettle bells, if that’s what you’re doing. You can also find workout programs on Fitocracy, in exercise magazines, you can take a strength class at the gym twice a week, whatever.

I could go on about this for a long time, but the only other major thing to add is: unless you are more advanced than me, don’t do resistance two days in a row. Your body needs to recover to get stronger.

**slightly controversial opinion** A lot of weightlifter folks can be a bit disdainful of yoga as a resistance training program. While I choose to lift weights as my strength program, I mostly disagree with them. While I don’t think yin or restorative yoga qualify, I have been awfully sore after enough vigorous yoga classes. Plus, if you’re going to a studio, variety is built-in! If you’re using yoga DVDs at home, like I said above, get a few DVDs. 

Do some other stuff if you want. I love a nice restorative yoga class. Pilates was helpful when I was recovering from my last ankle surgery, but unless you’re using a reformer or another machine, it’s not a full-body workout. Riding your bike to work is probably not your cardio, unless you’re going much faster than I see folks ride in Chicago. Unless you are walking really quickly for 30 minutes with an eye toward raising your heart rate, walking is not your cardio.

Working out: it’s not scary, it’s good for you, and if I can do it, you can, too. One hour of resistance training twice a week and thirty minutes of cardio twice a week = 3 hours total. Taking that time can be tough, but feeling healthy is pretty great. I hope you all get to it, and I hope to see you at  water aerobics class when we’re all in our 80s. 

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