I’m a pretty busy person with a pretty intense work schedule. However, throughout the past few months, I have been able to slot in around 5 hours of workout per week—a feat I once thought impossible. Working out has become an integral part of my lifestyle, and it has made me healthier, happier, and calmer.

For years, I have known that I should work out, but I’ve never been able to made it past 1-2 hours per week—until recently. What changed? My attitude towards exercising changed—it changed from a should-do to want-to-do. The key is to make it fun. Working out should be energizing, not energy-draining. I don’t actually have specific or serious goals in mind. It has just become my primary way of relaxing and unwinding.

And I think for most people who work in the office and sit in front of computers all day, this is the most practical way to make it sustainable and turn it into a habit. Here I share some of the lessons I’ve learned on how busy people can consistently make time for working out.

Consider it a great use of time

The most common excuse for not working out is “I don’t have time”. That is just another way of saying “this is not a good or important use of my time.”

I am an efficiency zealot and I plan my time extremely carefully. There is nothing I hate more than wasting time. To me, working out is the greatest investment I can have with my time, because of the simple fact that it can make me live longer. If by investing in say 30 minutes per day, I can avoid some kind of chronic disease and live an extra 5 or 10 years, that is the greatest deal ever. How can exercise be a waste of time when it is essentially creating extra time? Life is getting longer for most of our generation. So we should optimize for the long term when considering ROI on time spent.

Make it the default, go-to fun activity

I used to schedule meals and other activities for the weekend, and slot in workout classes when I can. Now I do the opposite. Every Tuesday or Wednesday, I start browsing different fitness apps to plan my workout classes for the weekend. I then plan other activities around my workout classes. It’s all about priorities. In the past, when I felt like I didn’t have time to work out, the truth is I didn’t prioritize it enough to make time.

Classes should be something you look forward to, not something you dread. There are several startups in China that offer offline fitness classes that feel like clubbing (such as Space, Super Monkey, Shape, and Body Lab), and I’m a huge fan of these. I go to at least 2 per weekend, sometimes 2 on a single day. With upbeat music, club-like lighting, and an energizing instructor, you can lose yourself in the beat and almost forget that you’re working out. I also love exploring different classes and new workouts. I discovered rebounder workouts through one of the classes, and even started trying out pole dancing lately.

Make it social

I have a regular group of friends that I go to workout classes with. This has become the primary way that I socialize. When I browse workout classes for the weekend, I forward them to the group chats to see if anyone’s interested in going together.

One of the best ways to get active is to befriend people who are already active. The fun of doing it together and the slight peer pressure provide just enough motivation to keep you moving. Next time, instead of planning a dinner or a drink, try planning for a workout classes with a friend—you can always do the dinner or the drink afterwards; it’ll only taste even better.

Follow fitness YouTubers

Workout classes can get pretty pricey, so at-home workouts are crucial as well. For these I follow YouTube videos. I get bored pretty easily, so I love being fed new workout videos every time I open YouTube’s home page. I follow a wide variety of fitness YouTubers and here are some of my favorites:

Buy a lot of workout clothes

Ok, maybe this is just an excuse for me to shop. I admit that I have the same pair of leggings in 7 colors. But looking good does feel motivating, and every extra bit of motivation helps.

Besides, once I’ve adopted an active lifestyle, athleisure has become my default costume, even at work and on weekends. I’m either working out or on my way to/from working out, so I don’t have a lot of opportunities to wear other clothes anyways.

Besides Lululemon, I love Chinese brands like Maia Active and Neiwai Active, which have better fit for Asian physiques.

Do not cram it into the weekend

I used to sit all day on workdays without moving much (sometime for 8-10 hours straight), and then work out like crazy on weekends. But I still had shoulder and neck pains, which my weekend workouts did not cure. I thought it was because I sat too much, so I got a standing desk. It still didn’t work. It turns out the real problem is not just sitting too long—standing too long can be bad for you too—but being in one position without moving for too long. The real enemy is not just sitting, but stillness.

I learned from TED talks and fitness trainers that no amount of workout can repair the damage of sitting (or standing, or being in any position) for more than a few hours without moving. The human body is built for mobility, not for stillness (which is why kids love running around so much). So the correct way to do it is to space out workouts and movements throughout the week, and even throughout the day.

For me, the most difficult part has been meetings. When I’m working at my desk, I can stand or do stretches from time to time. But when I’m in meetings, I just end up sitting the whole time—and I’m in meetings 80% of the workday. (Someone should invent standing meeting rooms, and I now greatly appreciate managers who like walking meetings.)

For people who have a lot of meetings, here are some things to consider: Try to turn 1:1 meetings into walks. For video calls where you are just listening in and do not need to actively participate, just walk and listen on your phone at the same time. In internal meetings where everyone is sitting, if it’s not too weird, just stand up and stretch from time to time. Turn bathroom breaks into bathroom-and-stretch breaks. In short, insert movements and stretches throughout the day, whenever you can. On weekday evenings, if you’re too tired to do cardio or strength, at least try to do a milder workout at home, like stretch, yoga, or barre. The key is to keep moving and never be still for more than 1 hour.

Learn life lessons

Working out has helped me refresh some of the most fundamental truths about life and humanity—stuff everyone knows but it’s good to be reminded of once in a while.

For example, repetition is key to any workout, and it can get boring pretty quickly. In order to get better, you just need to keep repeating it over and over again, until you’re more than sick of it, and then you become good. This applies to almost everything in life.

Another cliche that I now nod to is “No pain, no gain.” Or in the case of pole dancing, “No bruises, no beauty.” I have been to 3 pole dancing classes and already have 8 bruises on my limbs. A friend told me that pain and bruises are mostly caused by the friction created when your weight is pulling you off the pole, so one way to reduce pain is to hold onto the pole tighter with your limbs. As a beginner, my natural instinct was that the tighter I held onto the pole, the more painful it would be—which is the exact opposite of reality! By being fearful of holding on too tight, I created more pain for myself. What a life lesson!

Try harder, hold on tight, and life will be more painless as a result.

One thought on “How to have time for fitness when you’re busy

  1. Hi, Zara – very interesting article! I agree. I made exercise mandatory as well. Before COVID, in spring summer fall, I’d play tennis in the morning and golf – walking and carrying the bag on Monday aft’, bball and weights tues and thurs morning, tennis on wed’ morning, golf on Friday morning or tennis on friday. Tennis replace golf in the winter. All were very social and fun. I have not been playing tennis because the club owner tripled the price during COVID once the distance protocols were found to be okay. I think it’s more reasonable now so I am going to go back when golf stops. Susan had a gym class with social interaction and walking with friends. She’s trying to get back in the gym because that’s where she did the weights. I think she might try your ideas to get back in action. Thanks!

    Hope all’s well otherwise. We moved last August [2021] and still do not feel settled. We like it, though; we’re on a pond, went kayaking last night. Starting to travel again this year.

    Be well,

    Be great to hear more about what you are doing! Best, Dennis

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