So, here’s an email I got the other day:
I hear this question all the time…“How do I stay in shape if I’m sitting in the office all day?”
You’ve probably asked yourself this question a few times as well.
You know, in those moments when you’re trying to drag yourself to the gym after spending 12-hours hunched over your computer. Or when you pull on your work clothes and realize that there’s a 50/50 chance your pants are going to split if you try and sit down. Or worse, you don’t even notice the deterioration of your health and body until it’s too late to fix it. No one wants to wake up at 30 and realize that they’re a sleep-deprived, borderline-alcoholic, overweight corporate drone that is so out of shape that they couldn’t make it up a flight of stairs without losing their breath and stopping for a break halfway.
Sorry if that’s a little vivid, but that is my nightmare.
The first few months of my management consulting career was a rough adjustment. I went from being a varsity athlete who worked out multiple times a day to a cubicle monkey that worked 60–100+ hour weeks and ate more Subway foot-longs than I care to remember.
I was well on my way to putting on a ‘first-year fifteen’ until I had a wake-up call. I was sitting in the food court downstairs from my office, halfway through shovelling down a late-night bowl of greasy pad thai, when I just stopped, put the fork down, and thought, “What am I doing?!?”
After this wake-up call, everything changed. I stopped eating eating the office donuts, and started stuffing my briefcase with almonds and cashews. I stopped snoozing my alarm and started going to 6:00 a.m. spin classes. Through trial and error I figured out some ways to stay in shape even though I worked all the time. I even got in good enough shape to play international rugby for Canada while still working my management consulting job.
There’s a lot that went into making that goal happen, but today I’m going to share just one thing: the simple fitness plan I used to get in shape in less than 2 hours a week.
How to get in shape when you have no free time
Life was simple when you were in college. Sure you were busy, but you were mostly free to do what you wanted when you wanted. If you wanted to skip class and watch Curb Your Enthusiasm all day, you could do that. If you wanted to party on a Tuesday because it was ‘Country Night’, you could do that. And if you wanted to workout 6 times a week, you could do that.
But now that you’ve sold your soul to the corporate world, life works just a little differently…
Instead of complete freedom, you work for a dictator boss who controls your life. Projects can blow up at any time, so making plans ahead of time is pointless. And you need to be on-call 24/7, so sneaking off for a lunchtime workout just ain’t gonna happen.
A lot of my friends at work struggled with this new lifestyle, and decided to just put their health on the back-burner and focus on work. They said they’d just ‘figure it out’ once they moved to a job with better work-life balance.
Maybe this approach worked for them, but I didn’t want to fall off the fitness train and never get back on. In my opinion, no amount of money is worth sacrificing your health that much.
So I started looking for ways to workout despite my unpredictable and uncontrollable schedule.
The key mindset shift I had was realizing that you don’t need to workout like you did in college to get in shape. You don’t need to be hitting the weights 5 days a week or doing 30 minutes of morning cardio every day.
Despite what you’ve been told, there are extremely simple strategies that can save you time and get you in phenomenal shape.
‘Exercise minimalism’ = workout less and get better results
When I was struggling to find time to train for international rugby, I stumbled upon the concept of ‘exercise minimalism’. The first interaction was from the book The 4-Hour Body, where Tim Ferriss talks about the concept of the ‘minimum effective dose’.
“The minimum effective dose (MED) is deﬁned simply: the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome[…] Anything beyond the MED is wasteful. To boil water, the MED is 212°F (100°C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it “more boiled.” Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.
If you need 15 minutes in the sun to trigger a melanin response, 15 minutes is your MED for tanning. More than 15 minutes is redundant and will just result in burning and a forced break from the beach…”
The book goes on to apply this concept to exercise, and the implications are profound. Instead of trying to do the most exercise you can tolerate, you should be doing the least amount required to produce your desired results. I was used to mimicking the workouts of professional athletes and doing the 5×5 routines from the pages of glossy magazines, and now this was telling me that it was a waste of time?!
Precision Nutrition—the world’s largest online nutrition coaching company—also wrote about exercise minimalism with an experiment they did with one of their clients. They had this client work out for a total of 8 hours and 32 minutes… over the course of 4 months. That works out to 32 minutes a week. Each week she’d do two sprint workouts (6 minutes each) and two circuit workouts (10 minutes each). The results?
That type of progress is bonkers.
If you’re wondering how that is even physically possible, here’s the simple one-word answer: INTENSITY. Exercise minimalism only works if you jack up the intensity of your workouts. By increasing the intensity for a short period of time your body is forced to make beneficial adaptations: lose fat, gain muscle, improve conditioning, etc.
CrossFit and Spin classes operate using the same principle of intensity, and just a few weeks ago there was a New York Times article that explained why “1 Minute of All-Out Exercise May Have Benefits of 45 Minutes of Moderate Exertion”.
Pulling on your leotard and going to a Jane Fonda aerobic workout is in the past; now it’s all about intensity.
An exercise routine for busy professionals
When I learned about the idea of ‘minimalist exercise’, I immediately started applying it to my life. I stopped trying to work out everyday and started just trying to get a few high quality, intense sessions in each week.
Each week, here’s what I did:
- ONE high-intensity strength training workout per week (7–20 minutes each)
- ONE high-intensity interval training workout per week (5–10 minutes each)
- ONE weekend walk / sport / activity (60 minutes)
Do this, ignore everything else, and I guarantee you will get in better shape than you’ve ever been. That’s 90-minutes a week (and 60 minutes is just having fun in the park!).
If this seems to easy, that’s a good thing. The goal is to make exercise so easy that you don’t have an excuse not to do it, even if you are working a week from hell. Think about it… how many hours have you wasted trying to start an intense fitness routine only to fall off the wagon a few weeks later when your project blows up? Exercise minimalism is built for the long-haul. You’ll be able to do this routine through the ups and downs of life, year after year. Try this for 4-weeks and see what kind of results you get.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
ONE high-intensity strength training workout per week (7–20 minutes each)
- An easy option = The 7-Minute Workout
- The best option is a specialized ‘high-intensity training gym” that is designed for once-a-week workouts. (NOTE: this is nothing like your typical GoodLife. I have a directory of good facilities around the world, so email me if you want to try this out.)
- The cheap option is High-Intensity Training on your own using free-weights, machines, or bodyweight. (Email me if you want to try this and I’ll hook you up with a plan).
ONE high-intensity interval training workout per week (5–10 minutes each)
- Treadmill sprints (2 minute warm-up. 15 seconds sprint, 15 second rest. Repeat 5 times.)
- Sign up for a spin class (this is what I used to do)
- Outdoor hill sprints (Warm-up. 10 sprints up, walk down. Cool-down.)
ONE weekend walk / sport / activity (60 minutes)
- Get some friends together and play a game outside like frisbee, soccer, basketball, etc.
- Go for solo hike, walk outside, bike ride, etc.
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Right. That’s the framework I used to workout while working crazy long hours. This should be enough to get you started, but I’m sure you have more questions… How do I find time to workout during the week? What should I do if I only have time for bodyweight workouts? This sounds like b.s. — how does it actually work?
Just leave a comment below with your question. I’ll hit you back with an answer based on what’s worked (and what hasn’t worked) for me.