I drink a lot of water and coffee. Consequently, I run to the bathroom almost every hour. It is down the hall and takes no more than a couple of minutes. I hardly notice these breaks.
Despite my peculiar love for time management and my obsession with avoiding distraction, it has never crossed my mind to schedule these bathroom breaks or shift my habits so that I take fewer. Nor have I ever felt my productivity suffer because of my body’s need for waste removal. I just go.
Similarly, bosses do not require wage-workers to clock out for bathroom breaks. There is an understanding that the lost time is negligible, if not a beneficial mental reprieve. Sometimes a lot can be gained from a five-minute break.
The reality is we all have time to work out. We just need to start looking at our workouts a different way. The typical exerciser will train three or four days per week. They’ll meander around the gym for a while doing five to eight exercises at about three sets each. At the high end that makes 24 sets. Each of those 24 sets will take 30 seconds or less, on average. That translates to 12 minutes of actual work.
This is not to belittle the work. Those 12 minutes create a cascade of changes in the body and they’d be less effective without some time between the sets. Still, it is about 10 to 12 minutes we are after and any extended rest between those sets will only improve the quality of subsequent work.
You may be thinking, "I don’t do strength training. I’ve always worked out differently." There are a billion other ways that you could train—the treadmill, stairstepper, spin classes, HIIT/metabolic conditioning, or pilates—but strength should always be one of the primary considerations.
Strength training staves off brittle bones, promotes a full range of motion, increases the metabolism, and lays the foundation to safely navigate other training modalities. Particularly when you add in time constraints, supersetted strength circuits become the lead domino. Very little will be as beneficial as a well designed (and it’s ridiculously simple) simple strength plan.
What you need is a kettlebell or a couple of kettlebells near your desk and four exercises with a lot big bang for the buck:
- 1-Arm Bent Row
- 1-Leg RDL or 1-Arm Kettlebell Swing
The weights should offer an appropriate resistance, but they needn’t be excessively heavy. This is part of the grease-the-groove philosophy popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline. By working out every day with sub-maximal weights and never hitting failure, you can make tremendous strides in strength and overall fitness.
The point is to focus on quality every time and get better at the skill of each movement. By not approaching failure, you offer the body a dose it can quickly recover from. Exercising in this manner leaves you refreshed and more active. It is actually a far more natural way of training and, most importantly, it works in congruence with the science of habit installation.
You Are Your Habits
Desired changes almost always fail because:
- People don’t understand or honor the primacy of the habit loop in controlling consistent actions.
- People don’t understand the differing characteristics of their emotional and logical minds and how to manipulate outcomes via environmental design.
I call this self-mastery and for a deeper dive, see my free ebook, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery. For now, I’ll summarize the habit-loop.
Most actions are the product of a habit loop: a cue, followed by a routine, followed by a reward. Your phone chimes. You check it and then are rewarded with the satisfaction of that curiosity and possibly some juicy information. You feel boredom, then head to the pantry for chips, and get the reward of tasty satisfaction.
If you want to install a new action (routine), you’ll need to find a cue and a reward, and you’ll want to practice these patterns consistently. That is why this program is best done every day, or at least every work day. It is perfect for a Monday to Friday work schedule.
For your cue, I recommend setting a phone alarm for the last five minutes of six specific hours within your work day. For example:
- 9:55 am
- 10:55 am
- 11:55 am
- 1:55 am
- 2:55 am
- 3:55 am
At each alarm you’ll do the simple routine outlined below:
1. 40 Second Warm-Up
- Bird Dog (approximately 5 sec per side)
- Down Dog – 10 sec
- Superman – 10 sec
- Right leg split, squat, hold, and reach – 5 sec
- Left leg split, squat, hold, and reach – 5 sec
2. Main Event
- 1-Arm Bent Row x 10 per side
- 1-Leg RDL x 5/side or 1-Arm Kettlebell Swing x10 per side
- Press x 3-5 per side
- Squat x 15-20
I’ve naturally progressed the movements in an order that promotes safer movement and ensures you are warm enough, despite the short warm-up. Still, if you ever feel unsafe, lower the weight. Over time the exercises can change as I’ll demonstrate with later iterations, but just do these exercises in a straight circuit at each of your six cues.
The final consideration is the reward. Soon enough, the reward will take care of itself. You’ll simply feel better after each of these 3-4 minute breaks. Still, I recommend starting with another reward. Most of us check our phone and email too often.
You could make a rule that you didn’t get to check either until after one of these exercise blocks. That is far more than I check email every day. You could have a small fruit or mixed nut snack ready for after each block. The sky's the limit if you are creative, but the point is to have a consistent cue, especially in the first month of this program.
The principles of this program are simple and allow busy people to get an effective training dose, despite their hectic schedules. In fact, that time restriction may be the limitation that reveals a better way.
As the Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius, mused, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” We are better off for having a plan that forces us to master habits and move in frequent short blocks.
It is better to move a bit all day than to get it all in one clump and spend the rest of the day in a sedentary slump. The optimal lifestyle would be doing this intermittent strength program along with active daily habits like taking the stairs, parking at the furthest spot, biking to work, mowing your own grass, gardening, and occasionally playing games. After you see the results of these short habitual patterns, you’ll start to see the world and movement differently.