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.

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.

If you have an office job and exercise during the day once or more per week, how do you make it work?

31 thoughts on “How to exercise during the workday if you have an in-the-office job

  1. I am a working mom, and exercising during my lunch time is the only option for me time-wise. I love it! The way I make it work is shifting the start time of my day to 7.30 am (instead of 8 am), so that I can take a full hour to exercise (11.30-12.30) and still leave the office at 4.30 pm (or 5 pm if needed).

    When we worked at the old location, the only equipment we had was located in a basement of our building and included a treadmill (with a sign-up sheet), and a yoga mat. We also had a bathroom there (with a toilet and a sink – no shower), but still I managed to do some workouts following youtube videos form my phone, and using the weights that I brought from home. And yes, the wipes and a towel worked just fine!
    We recently moved to the new building with the remodeled basement – it now includes the locker room and two showers. We are also much closer to the park (10 min walk), so it is much more comfortable and enjoyable to exercise outside when the weather is fine. I am still following the same rule – treadmill combined with the weight lifting/youtube workouts. It is definitely a time saver for me!

  2. My lab is a half mile away from the main campus buildings-so at least 3 times a week, I’m racing through bridges and buildings to get to and from equipment rooms and meetings. We are also on a hill, so there are at least 5 flights of stairs that I have to climb up and down. I once logged 15000 steps going around campus doing my usual thing! I should start adding that into my workout log-it does make a difference!

    When it’s nice outside, since our hospital is also in the middle of a beautiful wooded area, my coworkers and I take half hour walks up and down the hills. It’s an easy way to take a brain break and wake up those legs!

  3. We have a full gym at my work place, but just 30 min to lunch. So I take 45 min pilates class during lunch 1 day per week (with my boss agreement) and I go for a run and some gym workout after work another day. On Sundays I take a yoga class near my house so I get 3 good workouts during my week plus 15 min walking from home to metro system every day.

    1. @Jessica – those 15 minute walks to the metro really will add up. If you did nothing else, but walked 15 minutes there and 15 minutes back each day you’d still be getting a reasonable quantity of exercise.

  4. I have so much to say on this topic. It is totally doable to walk at lunchtime. It’s become so much a part of my routine that my coworkers know I will take my “walk break” at some point mid-day. If they grumble, it’s not to my face. 😉 I put on my sneakers and sunglasses, grab my hat and iphone, and start walking in a loop around the office park. It’s not an exciting view, but it’s fresh air, time away from the office, and time to listen to podcasts (including BOBW!). I’ll usually walk for about 30 minutes, but can adjust based on the demands of my day. The psychological barrier for me now are the days when I don’t have my daily walk break from the office. A number of years ago, my favorite yoga teacher taught an 11:15am class on Mondays at a studio near my office, so I would take an “early lunch” and take the yoga class. Then, when I was actually hungry for lunch, I would eat at my desk. I currently leave work early 1-2 days a week to make an early yoga class. My work performance doesn’t suffer from the way I manage my time to make workouts a priority.

    1. @Amanda- I heartily approve of listening to BOBW while walking! Also, I agree that when it’s just something you do, it’s something you do. So if anyone is starting a new job, set the expectation early that you will get some fresh air and exercise in during the day.

  5. I’m a runner, and the way I get my runs in is just before it’s time to go home. I either come in earlier or work through lunch and then run at the end of the day before I have to pick up my kids. That way I don’t have to clean up to be work presentable again. And since I live in Vancouver Canada, I can do whatever I need to after work in the work out gear, very informal around here, I love it!

  6. When I started tracking my steps I was discouraged to get so few during the day at the office that when I got to the gym I had to really walk a long time to reach a goal. I found that it’s 100 steps from my office desk to the restroom. Then afterwards, I usually take the stairs up one flight, walk back and forth 1 time in that hallway, back down the steps to my floor, 100 steps back to my office. With all that I’m getting 250+ steps each time and it doesn’t take but a couple minutes. If you do Fitbit, they recommend 250 steps an hour for activity and this method really helps with that.

  7. I have a question, because this topic is very interesting, as I started running in August and now that it’s minus 10, minus 15 C outside, I only run inside and thus it only happens on Sundays when I can access the indoor track (no more 6:30 AM runs in my neighbourhood, which started my day). So here is my logistic question: Maybe I am naive, but when do you eat if you are out exercising? Do you skip lunch?

    1. @Nadia- you eat lunch at your desk. At least that’s what I did when I had an in-the-office job and used my lunch break to exercise. I’d bring my lunch and then eat it at the desk while answering emails.

  8. I am lucky as my company has treadmill desks that can be checked out. It has taken some trial and error to figure out what types of work can be completed while walking, and then batching those tasks, but it’s great to be able to walk 2-4 miles by the end of a day. Consistency has been difficult, however…
    I’ve also really enjoyed Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. She has some “Yoga for Busy People” videos, and I’ve done some in my office with the door closed when I had 15 minutes and needed to wake up.

  9. I no longer have this problem, as being a stay at home mom to a toddler seems to provide me with ample exercise (I wear a Fitbit and rarely clock fewer than 15k steps/day between running after him and walking to classes.). But I used to walk to and from work, which gave me a good baseline of physical activity even if I didn’t get any “real” exercise that day. When the weather was decent I would run home from work one or two days a week. It couldn’t be done every day, since I’d run home with a small waist pouch and leave my regular clothes in the office to take home the next day, but it was a nice way to save the in-and-out time of going home and then going back out to the gym. I know a lot of people who bike to or from work, which is more practical if you live more than a couple miles away.

  10. I love this topic and the comments! I used to work 3.5 days a week and had one child, and I could only find time to run 1-2 days a week for some reason. Now I work 4 days a week and have two children, and I do some exercise almost every day. It really helped to read 168 hours and think about where I could fit in exercise, even small amounts, throughout the week. Every work day, I take a 12-minute walk around our campus with a colleague. One of us usually looks at the other’s calendar in the morning and then sends an invite for a walk. Others in my office take daily walks too. Parking is pretty full on my campus, so I purposely park in an “upper” lot rather than drive around looking for parking, which means walking 5 flights of stairs. I have my own office so usually three days a week, I close my office door, roll out my yoga mat and either do something from Yoga with Adrienne, or The Balanced Life Online (Pilates). I’m a paid member of the Balanced Life Online which provides a calendar of workouts, with three shorter workouts (10-15 minutes) and two longer workouts (30 minutes). I actually rarely do the longer workouts but the membership cost is still worth it to me just for the calendar and not having to think about what workout to do (I’m an obliger). I generally work later than my colleagues so I usually do this after everybody’s gone, but even on days when people are still around, I’ll still try to do it, just close my blinds. I keep a pair of shorts, socks, sneakers, and yoga mat at work. I telework for a few hours one afternoon a week, and I usually do a treadmill run and shower during that time. I know I’m supposed to be working but I feel my overall productivity is better with this longer break once a week. Then I run 1-2 times a week on my days off, either on our home treadmill or at the YMCA with childcare. Having kids means I more treadmill runs than outdoor but that is okay with me.

    1. @Sunny- congrats on becoming better at fitting things in as you’ve had more kids and started working more hours. Yep, time expands to accommodate what we need or want to do with it.

  11. I do a lunchtime yoga class on M, W, F and a walk or run on T, Th during which I listen to BOBW and Happier. It’s my favorite part of the day, and I am so much more productive in the afternoon. It also makes me more resilient to work stress both physically and psychologically. There might be some coworkers who think I should be working, but I prioritize my health over keeping up appearances in this regard.

  12. I think this is such a pertinent question for women in other stages of life! I’m in the stay-at-home-parent role with three little ones, and I’ve heard so many people 1) complain about no time to exercise 2) shock that I do exercise.

    Like you shared up there, rethinking what I think of as ‘real exercise’ has been helpful for me! Aside from walks (which get harder for me with multiple kids to wrangle), dance parties together with kids, lots of airplane rides on legs/crunches, arm lifts holding them, or even doing stretches together with them has been a great way to stay active when regular gym time is harder to fit in. Thanks for a great post!

  13. I’m really passionate about this subject. I am at director level in a marketing agency in London and have exercised in my lunch hour 4 days a week for 6 years. I lift heavy with a focused 35-40 minute session with a major lift each day – squat, deadlift, pull, press. I am now lifting ‘advanced’ weights with no longer sessions than this. I am often asked how I manage to get to the gym and the answer is simple. A recurring meeting calendar entry and prioritisation. No-one has ever criticised me and my career has survived just fine. In fact I think it helps because I’m so energised and productive in the afternoon compared to my colleagues. In practical terms I usually shower from the neck down and my makeup and hair is largely unaffected by the session. I pack a lunch and eat at my desk after.
    I also second the get your kids involved comment. When I was on maternity leave my son and I would do DVDs together or would mess in the park (sprints, dinosaur lunges, ninja burpees, jumps over branches).
    Ultimately take ownership of your life, your time and your priorities and you can fit it in.

    1. @Louise- good for you. And I imagine you are also a good role model to other people at the company — see, she’s advanced while exercising at lunch. You can too!

  14. You could also choose to wear less or no make-up. If more women stopped buying into the sexist, time-consuming, and expensive cosmetics industry, not wearing make-up would become the norm, and no one would face negative consequences. As long as we are are part of the system, nothing will change.

    1. @Louisa- here here! I will not wear much make-up for normal days. I saw some make-up brand (if I remember correctly) selling an 8-minute face as a time-saver for busy women. Which I found absurd. I have never spent more than 2 minutes on this unless I’m going on television (which is a different can of worms). I am not denying I might look better with more make-up but…priorities.

    2. THIS!!!!! Anti-aging, dieting, fashion, makeup, skincare……takes time and mental energy away from our careers, not to mention money out of our pockets!!! But the socialization is STRONG and I have to consciously fight it.

  15. While it’s not really “exercise,” here goes: we have sitting/standing desks at our offices, so that with the press of a button the desk moves up or down. Each night, I set my desk up for standing, so that each morning I walk in and find it ready. Then I set an alarm for 2h 30m and can’t sit until it goes off. Each week I’m working up by another 10 minutes! Another thing: if you’re standing, it’s easy to do occasional reps of calf raises.

  16. I do a combination of the things you suggest, as well as work through my lunch hour to leave early so that I don’t have to worry about getting back into work clothes/hair/makeup. I call this a “beat the bus” run because I get home, quickly change, and then run as much as I can until my kids school bus arrives home.

  17. This is one of my biggest challenges at the moment. Previously I worked from home and exercised religiously late-morning, then showered afterward. Or, when I worked in an office, I would occasionally run on my lunch break, then shower. But in the last few years, I’ve transitioned both to motherhood and to working in an office. I really miss working out during the day — Like you, I find it cleared my thinking tremendously.

    The two hurdles I face are 1) Clearing time consistently on my calendar when my biggest responsibility is leading my team, which requires a lot of in-person meetings. I can do this some days but not others. 2) Having enough brain space to think ahead re: what I need. There are so many things to remember between kids and work each day, it still feels overwhelming most days.

    I believe the key here is systemizing this, so I do the same thing at the same time on certain days as much as possible. I’m starting with early morning yoga before work (requires having my husband on board to watch the kids those mornings, and also means he doesn’t get to exercise those mornings).

    I also do a lot of (slow) walking meetings at work, even through the winter, which is a benefit of living in Florida. But I’d love to get back to a place where I can do heart-pumping exercise in the middle of the workday!

  18. I’ve already commented, but here goes: you can do HIIT (high-intensity interval training) without leaving your cubicle or desk area (push-ups, jumping jacks, etc.), and get a work-out in short periods of time. Research shows you get just as much benefit from three ten-minute workouts as one 30 minute workout. I keep a kettlebell handy and do swings periodically throughout the day.

  19. I go to a Crossfit class at noon 2x week. I eat at my desk and use dry shampoo, deodorant and wipes to clean up after (my gym is just down the street from my office and has bathrooms I can change in there). I take a little bit longer lunch hour on these days (70 mins) but try to compensate with shorter lunch breaks on other days. I don’t always love coming back to the office sweaty but it sure breaks up my day at my desk job to move in the middle of the day! I do avoid the gym on days when I have afternoon face to face meetings. As a working mom, there are never enough hours in the day so I try to use my lunch hour as my ‘self care’ time and always take it. Other days I will run errands or go home to tidy up the house if we had a hectic morning. I also meet friends for lunch and try to go on a date lunch with my husband once a week. I also usually run one early morning a week at 6 am with my best friend and I always plan a long run with some girlfriends for the weekend. I like to combine socializing with exercise whenever possible to check two things off my list.

  20. I work from home, so I don’t have the in-office issue. However, addressing the makeup/hair/presentation issue: I workout first thing in the morning and do it quietly and quickly in my bathroom since my husband sleeps in on days he doesn’t work (he gets up VERY early for his job). I do this so I’m ready for taking my son to school, appointments/errands, or freelance work-related meetings.

    While my exercise isn’t outside at this time, I shower the night before and refresh makeup a little before leaving the house.

    And yay!! to the simple-taking-a-walk example. If I’m at a conference or something all day, I often get out a take a brisk walk around. (Sometimes, I get others to come with me, and they get refreshed). Also, I absolutely second what people say here about taking the stairs rather than the elevator. A few flights can get heart rate pretty high up. 🙂

  21. We have a whole group that walks together three times around our buildings (12 min.), twice a day @ 10 & 3. We love it. Fresh air and a walk is just the break we need.

  22. I bike to work most of the year (and I live in a snowy part of Canada). 20 minutes each way, but it takes nearly as much time to drive, park, and walk to my building as I’m downtown and don’t get an on site spot. Morning is cool, so I never arrive too sweaty. It’s a casual office, but I can keep a blazer at my desk if I need to class it up.

  23. I always running 45min and swimming 10min everyday in the morning. This is very effective. I satisficed my exercise and exercise time. I think this is enough. This post is very effective and useful. Thank you for sharing this post.

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