How to Exercise During The Workday If You Have An In-The-Office Job


I exercise every day. I think it’s one of the best time investments I make. Exercise energizes me, and makes me happier with the world. Life often seems more doable after a run than it does before. I find that exercise is a great mid-afternoon break when I start to feel frazzled. Rather than waste 45 minutes reading the same emails six times in a row, I do something that then allows me to focus for the rest of the afternoon.

Of course, I work for myself and (most days) I work at home. This makes mid-afternoon exercising easier.

When you come back from an office workout and actually have the energy to focus all afternoon, you can get a lot done.

But I don’t think during-the-day exercise is impossible for people with ‘normal’ jobs.

I’ve been thinking of this recently thanks to a note from blog reader Annette, who lives in Australia. After listening to the audiobook of 168 Hours, she decided that she wanted to use her 30-minute lunch break to exercise (she noted that she normally worked through lunch or surfed the web).

The problem, of course, was that it was only 30 minutes. And then there was the question of what condition she’d be in afterwards. “How are other listeners accounting for time to redo makeup, redo hair, etc.?” she asked. “It seems the personal care after working out is harder to manage.”

This is true, and is an issue that is generally more problematic for women than men, both because of more complicated hair and make-up, and because women may be judged more on appearances.

My first suggestion is to rethink the definition of exercise. Any physical movement is good. You do not have to do high-impact aerobic activities that leave you a sweaty mess. You do not have to exercise for an hour.

A 30-minute lunch break can, on a nice day, allow for a 20-25 minute stroll outside. Just bring comfortable shoes and any necessary coats, gloves, hats, etc. You might even be able to squeeze a few other walk breaks into the day. If people go outside to smoke for a few minutes, go outside as well. Just don’t smoke!

Another option for standard office workers is the walking meeting. One-on-one meetings can be turned into walking meetings if the weather is decent and the other person has been warned in advance (so they don’t only have stilettos). This might be a particularly good option if you need to give feedback or advice to someone more junior to you. These conversations often feel more authentic if you’re not staring across the table in a beige conference room.

Or hey, if your workplace is large enough, you might take a fair number of steps just in the course of daily life. Last summer, I spoke at an organization in California that had multiple buildings spread across their campus. One woman whose office moved to the opposite side of the campus from many of her team mates reported that she was now getting so much activity that some stiffness/pain issues were clearing up (it was also hard to avoid being late to meetings, but that was a different matter).

Even a brisk walk seldom requires redoing hair and make-up. You could stop by the bathroom for 2 minutes after to look in the mirror and make sure nothing has gone terribly wrong. Quickly touch up lipstick and you’re good to go.

If you have a little more time, and somewhere you can clean up a bit afterwards, then more options for sweatier activities open up. You might not actually need more break time overall. If your boss is generally flexible, or your schedule is, and you have been taking 30 minutes for lunch, maybe you could take 50 minutes on three days and work through lunch the other two days (you and a colleague could agree to cover for each other if that’s required in your job). Or you could take a 45-60 minute break during the day a few days per week but agree to come to work a little earlier or stay later on those days.

A 45-minute lunch break would be enough time to change (5-10 minutes), run for 25 minutes, and then spend 10-15 minutes making yourself presentable. This could involve a 3-minute shower (with shower cap) if you felt it necessary, 3 minutes getting dressed, with the remainder of the time spent re-powdering and possibly running a hair dryer quickly to fluff everything up, or putting hair in a ponytail or bun. This might not be a great idea if you’re presenting to the CEO that afternoon, but could work for a normal afternoon twice a week.

(No place to shower? Bring wipes and a little towel and maybe a touch-up on deodorant…though personally I think people can be excessively concerned about this. As long as you get out of your sweaty clothes, you’ll probably be fine.)

If you can take an hour, then you could exercise for 40 minutes (with a 10-minute buffer on either side).

Or you might aim to do an hour-long class at a nearby gym one day a week. If you take 90 minutes one day, and 15 the other 4 days, that’s 150 minutes, or exactly the same as taking 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. This would also be only one day, then, that you’d be worrying about post-exercise hair and make-up. But add one lunch-time class to one early morning sweat session and two weekend sweat sessions per week, and you’re exercising more days than you’re not. Which is pretty good as these things go.

So that’s the logistics. Of course, the psychological aspect is more complicated. I have definitely heard from people about office grumbling: how come she has time to exercise? Short walk breaks usually don’t inspire the same grumbling, so if you’re in that kind of office, that might be the way to go. But you could also choose to be a pioneer. When you come back from an office workout and actually have the energy to focus all afternoon, you can get a lot done. Hopefully, results speak for themselves.

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