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Fitness fixes for the time-crunched

With a demanding full-time job and kids, how do you possibly squeeze in physical activity? And if the only time you have to work out is at night, what are some good activities? Smart Fitness answers your queries.
Always on the run but with no time to work out? Stairs are great exercise, especially if you take them two at a time and at a fast clip.
Always on the run but with no time to work out? Stairs are great exercise, especially if you take them two at a time and at a fast clip.Getty Images File

With a demanding full-time job and kids, how do you possibly squeeze in physical activity? And if the only time you have to work out is at night, what are some good activities? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: I have two small children, ages 2 ½ years and 11 months, and I work a full-time job, as does my husband. How do I find time for exercise during the work week? I already get up at 6 a.m. to ensure everyone gets out of the house on time, and my job is very demanding. Any advice would be great!

A: No question you've got your hands full. For people with very busy schedules, experts often recommend setting the alarm 30 minutes to an hour earlier and getting the workout done first thing. But you're already getting up at the crack of dawn, so that's probably out of the question.

A better solution for you is to squeeze in physical activity throughout the day, says Beth Rothenberg, a life coach and former personal trainer based in Santa Monica, Calif.

But there's NO TIME, you say! Try altering your ideas about exercise, Rothenberg says.

Many people equate exercise with a trip to the gym. But short bouts of physical activity throughout the day — wherever they occur — count, too. While they probably won't give anyone the sculpted body of Hilary Swank or Matthew McConaughey, research shows that just half an hour of daily physical activity helps keep your heart in shape and offers other health benefits, and you don't have to do it all at once.

You've probably heard the old advice to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Well try also taking them when you don't really need to, advises Rothenberg, such as when you go for a coffee or restroom break. Head to the java pot or facilities several floors up or down from your office, and do the stairs a few times on the way back. Stairs are tough, especially if you take them two at a time or run them. If you need an incentive, keep track of how many stairs you do and then reward yourself with a little (low-fat) gift after you reach 1,000 or another goal.

You can also try squeezing in some calisthenics in between phone calls or while you're waiting for a meeting to start, she says. Push-ups and squats can be done anywhere and, together, they provide a good, albeit brief workout for the upper and lower body.

Even people chained to their desks can sit on stability balls to work their core without ever leaving the computer, says Jarrod Jordan, a personal trainer at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center in New York City.

Another idea for desk jockeys: keep some hand weights at your desk and do biceps curls or triceps push-backs while on the phone. Your coworkers might think you're a little wacky but, hey, you'll be buff and wacky.

If you want to try to hit the gym during lunch, keep in mind that you can get in a solid half-hour workout, with enough time to change and get back to the office, Jordan says. Increasingly, clubs are offering mini workouts — such as 30-minute cardio classes or circuit routines — for the time-crunched.

If you've only got 30 free minutes at lunch, take a brisk walk. Or you could see if other workers want to join you in the conference room for some yoga set to video.

For more ideas tailored to your situation, consider a couple sessions with a personal trainer who can develop a few 10-minute workouts that you can squeeze into your day.

Q: Help me schedule workout time at home! I currently wake at 5 a.m., and my baby and I are out the door by 6:45. After work, I pick up the baby at around 6:15 p.m. and then feed him as soon as we get home. Then my husband and I eat, and we start the bedtime routine. After all that, we like to spend 45 minutes together relaxing before hitting the sack. I'm thinking that skipping the relaxation time with my hubby is the only way to fit exercise in. Any suggestions? (We're not able to do it during work hours ... been there, done that.)

A: Don't make yourself nuts by giving up every last second of downtime, says Rothenberg. "Personal time is really a wonderful energizer and it's important to your emotional health," she says.

It's especially important that you take at least 10 minutes to yourself — to soak in the tub, read a chapter in a book or just sit quietly, stretch and breathe, she says.

Of course, physical activity is important, too. See the suggestions in the above response for squeezing in some activity during your workday. Even though you've "been there, done that," it sounds like you've tried unsuccessfully to fit in full workouts rather than looking for little ways to be active throughout the day.

As for what you can do at home, Jordan advises maximizing every opportunity you have to be physical. When you're vacuuming your carpets, squat down to pick things up (rather than bending over from the waist and possibly straining your back) and even do a few over-head lifts with your baby's (soft-sided) toys. When you go to the grocery store, carry some bags rather than pushing them all in the cart. While washing your car, get your whole body moving up and down. As you wait for the pasta water to boil, do some lunges or sit-ups.

"Try to activate the body as much as possible doing household chores," says Jordan. "Those do count."

You might also invest in some exercise videos or equipment such as a treadmill or stationary bike and some free weights that you can use as time allows.

Don't discount the value of a good workout on the weekends, when you likely have more time. Research has shown that even one solid strength-training session a week can help keep your muscles healthy.

You and your husband might also enjoying taking long walks together with the baby. Pushing a stroller at a semi-speedy clip can be a great cardio workout.

Prioritizing exercise helps make it happen. So kudos to you and the woman in the last question for not throwing in the towel. "If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anyone else," says Rothenberg.

Q: My girlfriend and I both work until 7:30 or 8:00 at night. We want to work out more, but by the time we eat it's almost 9:00. Any suggestions as far as working out at nighttime?

A: It's often recommended that people avoid exercising at night, for fear that it will be too stimulating and will wreck a good night's sleep. But that's usually not the case, says Shawn Youngstedt, an assistant professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

"The evidence indicates that [evening exercise] does not disturb sleep for most people," says Youngstedt, who researches physical activity and sleep.

So go ahead and give it a try. Any initial sleep disturbances may resolve within a few weeks, he says. If you notice persistent problems, though, you may need to find another fitness schedule.

As for some evening workout suggestions, you could search for a gym that's open late or even all night. If you live in a safe, well-lit neighborhood, you might go for an after-dinner walk, jog (maybe on a local track) or tennis match. Or you could consider buying fitness videos or home gym equipment and exercising at home.

Working out with your girlfriend has its perks, notes Rothenberg.

The buddy system helps ensure that you both get physical (peer pressure), plus it's a good way for you to spend time together as a couple and reconnect at the end of a long day.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.