How to Exercise When You Don't Have Time

lazy woman at work
Getty Images/Symphonie

When it comes to excuses for getting out of unpleasant tasks, "I don't have time" is one of my favorites. Dinner with the mother-in-law? No time! A trip to the dry cleaners? Are you kidding me with this schedule? What's great about it is that no one can politely question how busy you are and, when it comes to getting out of exercising, is there a better excuse out there?

Not according to folks who cite lack of time is one reason they don't exercise. But do we really lack the time or is that just an excuse?

How Much is Enough?

Starting an exercise program means rearranging your schedule to allow time for it, but it doesn't require that much time. Researchers know that short bouts of exercise can be just as effective for weight loss and health as longer workouts and that many people find it easier to stick with shorter workouts. This might be because people who do short bouts of activity:

  • are able to stick to their workouts more consistently
  • exercise more days a week than the long-bout group
  • accumulate more exercise time each week than the long-bout group

Other studies have found that short bouts of exercise can also help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, the same way longer exercise sessions can. Knowing that you could break up your workouts into a few 10-minute sessions, does the lack-of-time excuse start to lose its allure? Only if you delve a little deeper to find out why it's so hard to stick to your exercise program.

Getting to the Bottom of Things

Turns out, if you want to change your schedule to accommodate exercise, you must be motivated to do it. People who exercise don't necessarily have more time than you, they've just determined that what they're getting out of exercise is worth more than whatever else they could be doing during that time (sleeping, having lunch with friends, chores, etc.).

Think about it. If someone called and offered a free massage, but only in the next hour, how hard would you work to clear that hour of time? If you like free massages, you'd work pretty hard to change your schedule, just like you find time for other things like doctor's appointments, working late, watching TV, playing computer games or running errands.

Exercise is just like anything else but, unless it's a priority for you, you're never going to make time for it. I could give you a hundred reasons why exercise should be important to you, but you're the one who has to decide if it really is important to you. And if it's not, why not?

Getting insight into why you do what you do (or don't do) is the only way to change things for the better.

  1. Admit the truth — Do you really lack the time to exercise is there some other reason you're not fitting in workouts? Start by exploring your perspective on exercise and the reasons you don't do it. Do you have a fear of failure? Or maybe you just don't know where to start.
  2. Ask yourself: If I commit to exercising, how would I accommodate it? Sit down with your schedule and see what you come up with, reminding yourself that you're not committing to anything just yet. Maybe you could get up 15 minutes early for a strength workout or use part of your lunch hour to take a brisk walk or do a workout. Make a list of all the times you could exercise, no matter how short.
  3. What routines would I need to change in order to exercise? With your previous list in mind, what would have to change if you used that extra time for exercise? For example, for morning exercise, you would have to gather your exercise clothes the night before and get up earlier than usual. Go through each step in your mind or, better yet, practice one day to see what would have to change if you did this on a regular basis.
  4. What kind of exercise would be appealing to me? If you were to wake up in the morning and exercise first thing, what would sound good to you? Walking outside? Yoga exercises? A circuit workout? Make a list of activities you enjoy and imagine yourself doing those activities on a regular basis.
  5. What kind of exercise schedule could I live with right now? If you had to schedule exercise this week, what would fit in with your life right now? A 15-minute walk before breakfast and a half-hour at lunch? A quick jog with the dog after work or a workout video before dinner? How many days of exercise would you be willing to commit to? Forget about how many days you should exercise and concentrate on how many days you will exercise.
  6. Practice, Practice, Practice — Using all the information you've gathered, set up a workout schedule and commit to practicing it for, say, two weeks. Then, reassess and see how you're doing. Do your workouts fit well with your current routines? Is it working or do you need to make changes? Practice is how you determine what will work and what won't.

Too often, we worry so much about getting the perfect amount of exercise in that we end up getting no exercise at all. It's tough to let go of the idea that long, sweaty workouts are the only ones that 'count,' but in the new world we live in, we have to make some changes in how we live. Making time for exercise, even if it's just 5 to 10 minutes at a time, is your first step to making it a permanent part of your life.

Sample Quick Exercise Schedule

Here's one example of how you could incorporate 10-minute exercise sessions into your day:

Day 1: Three 10-minute cardio workouts

Day 2: Two or three 10-minute strength workouts

Day 3: Three or four 10-minute cardio workouts

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: Two 10-minute cardio workouts, one 10-minute strength

Day 6: Two 10-minute strength workouts, one 10-minute cardio

Day 7: Rest

If you do opt for shorter workouts, you might wonder if you can really get an effective workout if you only have 10 minutes. It all depends on what you do and how hard you work. When you're doing short workouts, you want to focus on intensity and work harder than you usually do. That means on a Perceived Exertion Scale of 1-10, try to keep your intensity around 7-9 throughout the workout. It may be tough, but you're only doing it for 10 minutes.

Cardio Workouts

When you're planning your workouts, you'll want at least two of your of 10-minute sessions to include cardio exercise. Any activity will work as long as you work hard at it. But, there are some activities that are harder than others and allow you to get your heart rate up a bit faster, which is what you want with short workouts. Some ideas include:

  • Running
  • Walking as fast as you can
  • Run up the stairs
  • High-intensity moves like jumping jacks, squat hops, step jumps, kickboxing, jumping rope, vigorous dancing
  • Cycling with both speed and high resistance
  • Any cardio machine at the gym — work at a high level of intensity (speed, resistance and/or incline) for 10 minutes

Strength Training Workouts

Strength training is another activity you want to include in your shorter workouts as well. So, if you have three 10-minute sessions planned, you could use two for cardio and one for strength or you could mix and match depending on what you're doing the rest of the week.

To get the most out of your strength training, you may want to follow a circuit routine in which you pick 10 exercises and do each one for about a minute (or to fatigue, whichever comes first). You also want to choose exercises that involve more than one muscle group at a time to keep the intensity up. An example of a strength circuit might be:

  • Squats
  • Walking lunges
  • Side lunges
  • Squats with leg lifts
  • Pushups
  • Bent over rows
  • Shoulder press
  • Tricep dips
  • Barbell bicep curls
  • Crunches on the ball
1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Shambrook P, Kingsley MI, Taylor NF, Wundersitz DW, Wundersitz CE, Gordon BA. Multiple short bouts of exercise are better than a single continuous bout for cardiometabolic health: a randomised crossover trial. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2020 Nov;120(11):2361-2369. doi: 10.1007/s00421-020-04461-y

Additional Reading

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."