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12 Sneaky Ways to Stay Fit When You’re Too Busy to Work Out

You try to be consistent, but sometimes breaks—be it from vacation, a move, or a busy work schedule—push exercise to the backburner. Here's how to stay healthy.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Check your mindset

Too busy to exercise? Or not motivated enough? A recent U.K. study analyzed what happened when healthy people took a break from physical activity for two weeks (they reduced their daily step count from 10,000 a day to 1,500 per day). They discovered that their new sedentary habits lead to a loss of muscle, more fat, and reduced cardio fitness. But it doesn’t have to be that way. One way to minimize fitness losses when you can’t exercise as much is to adopt the right mindset, says Cris Dobrosielski, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and owner of Monumental Results in San Diego. Forget the “all or nothing” approach that keeps you thinking that one or two days a week isn’t good enough—so you might not get in any activity at all. “That’s an unfortunate cognitive approach that leads to destructive behavior,” he says.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Realize it can be good for you

Rather than assuming the worst-case scenario (I’m going to turn into a ball of mush! I will never get in the habit again!), a planned week with less formal exercise can do your body good. Even athletes take an “unloading” week where they exercise at lower volumes and lower intensity, says Dobrosielski. Apply that same attitude and suddenly you’re having a week focused on rest and restoration—not a bad thing. Make sure you’re sleeping well, too, with these 13 secrets from sleep doctors.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Wake up your body

First, try these tricks for a happier morning. Then, even if you’re on a business trip and can’t head to the gym for 30 to 60 minutes, you can still get moving and stay fit. Take 10 minutes to do a couple stretches. “This allows you to wake up and connect to your body,” says Dobrosielski. A few of his favorites:

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Spinal twist

Lay face up on the ground in a supine position. Allow knees to go over to one side, keeping your shoulders square. “This the nicest thing you can do for your body during a period of stress because it helps stretch your lower back out,” he says.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Laying hamstring stretch

Using a belt strap or pillow case, lasso one foot while laying on your back. Straighten your knee, extend the other leg, and stay as relaxed as possible in your neck and shoulders. Gently pull your straight leg toward your body. “This is a marvelous stress-reducing, ergonomic-corrective exercise,” he says.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Supported lunge stretch

Keep one foot and one knee on the ground (like you’re in the bottom of a lunge). Hinge slightly forward with your front knee over your front ankle. Drop down into your hips. Do this one if you’ve been sitting for long periods of time or traveling on a plane, says Dobrosielski.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Watch what you’re eating

Staying fit isn’t all about exercise—it’s nutrition, too. In fact, it’s possible to lose weight without even exercising at all. (Here are 50 ways to do it!)  Watch the nutritional choices you’re making during the downtime, which will make it easier to maintain your body size and shape, says Dobrosielski. For instance, while you’re on vacation, maybe you scale back “vacation mode” by not making every meal and snack an indulgent affair. This is a great time to explore the fresh, local cuisine that tends to be both delicious and good for you.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Take a hike

Nature does wonders in making you want to move. In a 2017 study in PLOS One, people who went mountain hiking were happier, less tired, and less stressed after the exercise compared to those who walked on an indoor treadmill or were sedentary. When you’re on vacation, focus on moving in ways that will make you happy, and breaking a sweat won’t feel like exercise. Find out why hiking is also one of the best things you can do for your brain.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Do step-ups

All the little movements you do every day add up to make a difference in your fitness, says Dobrosielski. Case in point: Commit to doing “step-ups” when you’re walking. When you’re out, be on the lookout for a little stair or step that’s six to 12 inches off the ground (like a curb). When you see one, stop and do 15 to 20 step-ups. Repeat three times during the day. “You’re getting in extra steps and adding muscular strength and endurance,” he says.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Try a 90-second workout

If you’re on a business trip or vacation (or even stuck in the office), take a 60- or 90-second workout break. (Here are some 60-second workouts you can try.)  One of those quick and effective workouts is doing 30 seconds each of squats, pushups, and a plank or side plank. Aim for doing this three times a day, perhaps once before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “You’ll feel different at the end of a weeklong trip than if you hadn’t done these at all,” says Dobrosielski.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Rent a bike

So many cities now have bike shares (such as Divvy in Chicago and CitiBike in Manhattan) and there are even hotel chains, like Kimpton, that supply free bike rentals to guests. Meaning: As long as you ride safely, there’s no better way to sightsee while on vacation, says Dobrosielski. “Biking is perfect for getting exercise without having to set aside specific time to fit in a more formal workout while you’re away,” he says. If circumstances allow, you can also use bike shares to cycle to work—a new study in BMJ found that commuting to work by bike lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality from any cause.

12-Sneaky-Ways-to-Stay-Fit-When-You're-Too-Busy-to-WorkoutYevhenia Haidamaka /

Have fun

If you’re on vacation, it’s OK to keep family time front of mind. “The goal is to be with the people you love and take the pressure off,” says Dobrosielski. Make that time even more rewarding with these 13 tips for increasing family health and happiness. That makes it a great time to stay fit with new-to-you activities. Try a yoga class if you’re in a big city. Rent a SUP (stand up paddle board) if you’re near a coast. Think of it as an opportunity to build in some mental recovery time while still working those muscles in new and fun ways, he says.

Jessica Migala
Jessica Migala is a freelance health and fitness writer with more than a decade experience reporting on wellness trends and research. She's contributed to Health, Men's Health, Family Circle, Woman's Day, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. Jessica lives with her husband and two young sons in the Chicago suburbs.