Fitting in Fitness: A guide for the too busy parent

“I just don’t have the time!” How many times have you said (or heard) that phrase in response to a discussion about fitness and physical activity? I’ve heard and said it all too often over the years. Even though we all know that physical activity, of any kind is good for us, we still struggle to fit it in. I do not believe this struggle is because we’re making excuses or not motivated to exercise.  I think it’s because we live in a fast paced world where managing something that isn’t driven by an external force (e.g., someone telling you that you must show up at the gym at a certain time, receiving payment for exercise), physical fitness simply gets pushed to the side. Months and even years pass, and we dream of the day we will have more time to focus on ourselves, our fitness, and get the chance to move our bodies more.

If you’ve read any of my blogs on time management, you know what I’m about to tell you next: that day? That day where you finally have more time, you’re free, you’ve got space in your schedule to exercise? It’s never going to come. Truly. Really. There will always be something getting in the way of you fitting in fitness. “Well, Dr. Valentino” you might say, “this is a depressing blog, now, isn’t it?”

Not at all. I’m not going to tell you that it will be easy – if it was, everyone would engage in physical activity all the time. I AM going to help you use a little bit of science to fit fitness into your busy schedule and create long lasting behavior change over time.

So here it is! Seven tips for fitting in fitness for the busy parent!

  1. Find a physical activity you genuinely enjoy. This is huge! I often see people try to push themselves to engage in a physical activity that they just don’t like. Maybe they are doing it because they think it’s the only way to be fit or because it’s a new fitness fad. Don’t be that person. To establish a long-term habit that will fit into your schedule, you have to find an activity, or activities that you enjoy doing. That’s not to say every sweat is going to be a dream come true, but at the end of the day, you have to find some joy in the activity, or it just won’t stick. For some people, running is it – they love the freedom of being outdoors, breathing in fresh air, and moving their body repetitively over long periods of time. For others, running feels awful and the only way they are going to do it is if a bear is chasing them. You might need to try multiple activities before deciding on what’s best for you – but make that your first fitness goal – to find your fitness activity. I’ve tried dozens – and I mean dozens of activities over the years, and for the last five years, I’ve settled on CrossFit. I love the challenge; I love weightlifting and I love the cognitive component of working on form and getting a move just right. I also love the CrossFit community and the programming that goes along with it. I sometimes sprinkle in other activities (e.g., running, indoor cycling), but I consider CrossFit my bread and butter and everything else just extra. Find that joy – that thing that really makes you happy and make it your primary go to. It truly doesn’t matter WHAT it is. If you are moving your body and enjoy it, you’ve conquered most of the fitness battle.
  2. Pair activities with something else you enjoy. I’ve spoken often on my blog about the power of pairing – in this situation, taking something you really like to do and doing it at the same time as something that’s maybe a bit more neutral or even less preferred. Examples: listening to music (enjoy!), while running (don’t enjoy so much). Some people love listening to TED talks, podcasts or audiobooks while engaged in physical activity. Others enjoy social interaction and an upbeat atmosphere. Whatever your interests are, see if you can fit them in while doing physical activity to increase your motivation.
  3. Choose the right fitness type. Right along with choosing the activity you enjoy; you’ve got to find the way you enjoy engaging in that activity. Some important decisions: group vs. solo, indoors vs. outdoor, structured fitness center vs. home garage. Luckily, you can typically fit your fitness type into the activity – perhaps you really enjoy running but also love the social interaction with others – try finding a running group in your area or starting your own!
  4. Schedule it. As with my advice on time blocking, you’ve got to schedule your exercise time and stick to it fiercely. It sounds so simple, yet it’s the number one thing people don’t do when they fail to fit fitness in. So, when someone asks: “are you available at 6:30am Tuesday morning?” and that’s when you’ve scheduled time to walk – the answer is “NO.” that’s right, the answer is “No, I am not available.” Practice saying that and saying it repeatedly – “NOPE! Not available during that time, let’s try something else.” Importantly, never ever feel guilty for saying “no.” You should be proud of your commitment, and you don’t have to jeopardize your own health to accommodate someone else’s schedule. You just . . . don’t. You don’t have to schedule the same time everyday if that doesn’t work for you. Look at your schedule each week and ask yourself when and how frequently you’d like to engage in physical activity, even if that schedule changes weekly. Put it on your calendar and do not remove it, no matter what.
  5. Reduce response effort. Response effort is a behavior analytic term, and it refers to how much effort you have to put in to do something. Response effort is related to how much reinforcement you get for doing that thing. For the purpose of this discussion, you should have as little response effort as possible to get yourself to engage in physical activity, especially when first starting a fitness program. That means setting out your clothes before the workout, planning out your walking route, choosing a fitness facility very close to your home, choosing a structured group exercise program so you don’t have to decide what to do once you show up. You get the idea – limit the number of things you must do to engage in physical activity and make it as easy as possible to do so. Like with anything, the easier it is, the more likely you are to do it!
  6. Make public commitments. I like to tell my husband when I’m going to exercise before I do it. Even though he’d never judge me for not going, the mere act of announcing it to him helps increase the likelihood I’ll commit. When someone else knows you are doing something other than just you, it makes it more difficult to cancel, hit snooze, or otherwise say no to that commitment. So tell a friend or two – preferably someone who is in your immediate environment who will know if you commit or not.
  7. Get data and track your progress. There are so many apps and trackers these days related to fitness that you almost can’t NOT see your progress. Once you’ve decided on an activity, do some research to find out what you can use to track your progress. For example, Nike Run Club makes a great app for running progress and even provides badges as reinforcement along the way. You can earn different statuses for the length of your runs, which can be very motivating over time. As another example, most CrossFit facilities will use an online management software where you can log your times, weights, and overall progress as you complete each class. If you can’t find an app specific to your activity, try tracking your fitness via general fitness apps like MyFitnessPal or lose it!

It’s true – fitting fitness in can be a challenge for a busy parent. Following these steps and using a little science can help you make fitness a regular part of your life! Now get moving!

Leave a Comment