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No Time to Work Out? Start Small – and Don’t Beat Yourself Up

No Time to Work Out? Start Small – and Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Kids playing on a woman's desk while she's working and thinking about incorporating a workout into her routine.

For the millions of people who’ve seen self-care habits fall way by the wayside in the past few years, life can feel like it’s getting more crowded every day, with few opportunities to simply catch your breath. This is particularly true for those juggling work, childcare, schooling, and daily family management all in the same environment.

The pandemic has taken a staggering toll on the wellness of working parents, with 56% reporting struggles managing work and parenting, and rates of depression and burnout ballooning among adults worldwide.

Working mothers have disproportionately shouldered that burden. Moms are burning out in record numbers, and for them, self-care is usually the first thing that drops off the to-do list.

While there’s no easy trick to juggling life in the pandemic era, a little bit of exercise can go a long way toward keeping both mental and physical health in check. As Rebecca Vlam, LCSW, of Widener University in Pennsylvania puts it, “getting regular exercise is the most difficult, but probably the most important” factor in maintaining daily mental health.

The great news is that even a small amount of exercise can have a big impact on your physical and mental health.Exercise snacks” done throughout the day may be short in duration, but they add up. Plus, they’ll help build up your willpower “muscle”—helping you get out of the emotional funk than can discourage you from working out, even if you do have the time. 

Here are some ideas for fitting short bursts of exercise into your day without the burden of having to make the time.

Household Chores

It may seem like adding insult to injury to suggest you combine housework and exercise, but activities like cleaning, laundry, and dishwashing actually burn significant calories—meaning, you’re already exercising!

For those who truly cannot find a way to set aside a few minutes to work out, try dedicating 20 minutes every day, all at once or in snacks, to the chores you have to do anyway. Rather than slogging through them begrudgingly, if you think of housework as an activity you’re doing for your health, you’ll be more likely to lean into the calorie burn and get the added benefits.

Bonus burn: Get more exercise out of your chores with these modifications:

  • Incorporate lunges into your vacuuming
  • Try some pliés or side leg lifts (straight-leg or bent-knee) while washing dishes
  • Folding laundry? Alternate standing on one foot, or do some calf-raises

Walk and Talk 

Spend a lot of time on calls and Zoom meetings? Take that show on the road! Grab your headset, and take your calls on your feet, either outside for a stroll or just pacing around the house. Talk about multitasking—you’re exercising without even breaking from work! If colleagues live nearby, consider a walking meeting.

Not only has the CDC recommended walking as an optimal exercise, but if you can get outdoors, you’ll enjoy a lift in mood and a healthy shot of vitamin D as well.


If you spend your workday seated, the imperative of getting the heck up can’t be overstated. Peppering your day with timed “micro-workouts” not only makes this easy, but over the course of a day adds up to the equivalent of a full workout! Plus, research shows that exercise improves focus and creativity, so while it might be difficult to tear yourself away from work, you’ll likely end up with a more productive workday overall.

One easy way to start? Do 100 reps an hour of literally anything. There are dozens of different exercises to choose from that don’t even require equipment. Just do any combination that adds up to 100: 

  • 50 jumping jacks, 25 squats, 25 push-ups
  • Alternating sets of 20 lunges and 20 sit-ups
  • 100 mountain climbers—why not?
  • You get the idea!

Now pat yourself on the back, set a timer for 60 minutes, and get back to work. When the timer goes off, do 100 reps of something else! It only takes a few minutes, and it never gets boring. 

Don’t feel like thinking up your own routines? Apps like Obé Fitness, Fit On, and 7 Minute Workout offer on-demand workouts as short as—you guessed it—7 minutes for when you need the motivation of a class environment.

Get (or Foster) a Dog

Dogs aren’t just lumps of love covered in fur, but a great fitness companion, too. Owners of dogs, on average, walk 22 minutes more per day than non-dog owners. Dog walking offers a consistent routine and can lead to health benefits that include lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improved cardio health. Not sure about the commitment? Test the waters by fostering a dog—but move fast, as dog fostering has become wildly popular during the pandemic. If you’re a cat person, you can certainly try walking your cat…but don’t expect to break a sweat during your feline stroll.

Just go fast—for four minutes, or four seconds 

A 10-year Norwegian study found that short bursts of high-intensity exercise—no more than four minutes in length—were associated with better health outcomes and longevity. If even four minutes of heart-pounding activity sounds like an eternity, a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that just four seconds of high-intensity exercise boosted muscular and circulatory health and may have lifted mood, too.

What are some snack-length high-intensity workouts you can try? Well, you can do just about any type of cardio exercise for a few minutes!

  • Sprinting on a stationary bike 
  • Taking the stairs (but fast!) 
  • Sprinting around the block 
  • Jumping rope or doing jumping jacks
  • Burpees (AKA “military drills”)

Inspiration is everywhere if you’re looking for more creative high-intensity workout ideas. Most importantly, though, opportunities are everywhere to add simple activity to your daily routines, which is the ultimate goal for your mental and physical health.

And remember: We’re all trying our best, and at the end of the day, that’s pretty darn good.

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