There's no question that regular exercise is good for you, yet it's one of the hardest habits to commit to. The most common excuse? No time. But the latest research may bring relief for the time-pressed. In the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers proved that even small bouts of exercise (such as a five-minute walk down the block and back) spread throughout the day count as a workout, too. In fact, the researchers determined that these short exercise sessions are just as beneficial to long-term health as longer workouts if they add up to the same amount of time.
The key is consistency. “Start with just five minutes or even 10 minutes, but do it every day,” says fitness instructor and walking coach Michele Stanten. “Then you can increase it if you want.” What matters is that you find some time to move daily. From there, try a few of these strategies to make fitness a reality.
Invest in more than one pair of sneakers. Keep an extra pair at the office, in your car, or anywhere else you spend a lot of time outside of home, advises Stanten, author of Walk Off Weight and an American Council on Exercise-certified fitness instructor. That way, you can fit in exercise anywhere, anytime. “The easiest way to be active throughout the day is to walk,” she notes. “Plan to get to a doctor's appointment 30 minutes early so you can walk nearby, or put on your sneakers at the shopping plaza and walk to the different stores.” Stashing free weights or resistance bands beside your desk (all the better to use during a long conference call) or in a basket next to the couch (handy when you're between shows) can similarly help you squeeze in some strength training.
Put it on the calendar. Write what you're going to do — 5 p.m. Pilates class, 9 a.m. power walk at the park, 1 p.m. gentle yoga — on your calendar as you would a birthday or doctor's appointment. Being able to see your planned exercise helps ensure that nothing gets booked in that spot. And pencil in that Sunday morning walk or bike ride, too; a nonnegotiable weekend workout can go far to helping you meet your larger weekly exercise goals.
Sign up for a class. It's scheduled, you've paid for it, and (hopefully) it actually sounds fun. All good reasons to get out the door at 7:30 p.m. when you'd rather watch Netflix. A class can also offer some of the fitness benefits that researchers have found accrue when you work out with a partner — such as pushing you to work a little harder and longer than you would on your own. “But these benefits don't automatically happen,” notes Deborah L. Feltz of the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University. What's key, she says, is choosing a class with people you connect to. Class size, she notes, can play a big role in that: “If the class is not too large, you are more likely to feel accountable to others and also supported by them.”
Set specific goals. Researchers agree: When you set goals for yourself, you're more likely to carve out the time to achieve them. But know that vague intents such as “Go to the gym” are less motivating than specific — and realistic — ones such as “Walk for 15 minutes every day after dinner.” It's these well-defined and bite-size goals, says Stanten, that get you moving. Indeed, research finds that people who followed such specific and bit-by-bit goal-setting tactics had a 59 percent lower dropout rate in exercise over the course of a year than a control group.
Track your progress. Seeing your progress — the number of steps you took yesterday, the amount of time you worked out this week — can make a big difference in how motivated you are to make time for exercise moving forward. And the simple act of just writing down your efforts carries a little magic of its own. Simply “self-monitoring” things like miles walked or heart rate achieved can bring results. “Some of these things will help just because they put exercise on your mind,” Feltz says, likening the effect to how people being told to write down their water intake tend to subsequently boost it.
Designate some swing time. When you set aside time for exercise, also set up a contingency plan. “Always have a Plan B, and C, and D in case something comes up,” Stanten says. And while building in some flexibility to your plan is key, so is a little trial and error. No one scheduling or motivational method will work for everyone, notes Feltz, who says that finding a way to make fitness part of your life can come down to personal preference. Ultimately, your best approach may be a hybrid: having one or two nonnegotiable exercise “appointments” a week, plus goals like “10 squats a day” to be scheduled when you find small pockets of time.