Fitness Goals in Context

A struggle for many of my clients is managing the normal (or sometimes super stressful) obligations and curve balls of life while aspiring to create a healthy lifestyle.

I relate to this myself – my availability for working out sharply decreases when an unexpected crisis erupts, or when I’m out of my usual routine. My website crashes and I have to spend 24-48 hours devoting an unparalleled amount of attention to getting it back online. I go on a trip and stay with a friend who does not share my health goals or lifestyle. I have several evening events in a row, and have difficulty taking sufficiently long breaks during the day to focus on exercise.

In other words, at those times, it’s just not happening. 

How do I deal with these curve balls? How do I keep myself on track?

I have a number of strategies for dealing with time limitations (aka reality). You must accept one principle, however, to get started: busy-ness and health are not mutually exclusive.

This mindset is essential. I have written another blog post in the past about accepting your lifestyle for what it is and working with what you do have – not what you would like to have. But this post is going to be more specific about what you can do to create a lifestyle that works, even if you have the busiest job of all time, three kids who need your attention, or a travel schedule that constantly up-ends your routines (or maybe even all three, or more!).

Strategy #1: Use a “sliding scale” mentality.

Sometimes in your life, you’re going to be able to spend literally hours at the gym. Most of us have this memory of college or our early working years – a schedule that had hours-long gaps free of responsibilities (remember when you thought you were soooooo busy in college? LOLOLOLOL).

But for probably 90% of your adult life, those gaping caverns of time are not going to exist. Unfortunately, if you don’t prioritize health, life will rush in to fill the void with everything else first, putting you – and your needs – last in line.

Instead, adopt a “sliding scale” mentality to combat all-or-nothing thinking. Much like some medical or mental health professionals will accept a modified version of their usual rate if their client can demonstrate financial hardship, you can create a modified version of your aspirational lifestyle that actually fits your time budget.

You may not have hours, but you do have minutes, in other words. Adopt this mindset.

Strategy #2: Use shorter workouts more frequently.

Using the mindset from the first strategy, shortening your workouts is the practical application.

Especially for people with unpredictable schedules and lots of work travel, shorter workouts can yield long-term benefits, as long as this means that you can do them more frequently.

I have written before about the frequency of exercise playing a huge role in results, especially for people who have difficulty making fitness progress. Shorter workouts have the distinct advantage of being more repeatable – it is more likely that you will work out for 15-20 minutes five or six times a week, versus a 90-minute gym session that is so overwhelming that you only do it once.

In other words, you need to lower your expectations of the length of your workouts, but raise your expectations for the frequency.

Strategy #3: Redefine “exercise.”

This is very important. When you are crunched for time, or traveling, or busy with kids who need your attention all day every day, you may need to re-evaluate your definition of “exercise.”

If, in your mind, you are only exercising if you get in gym clothes, go to the gym/class/track/park, spend at least an hour exercising, sweat a lot, and feel sore the next day, you will be at a disadvantage during busy times of life. You may not always be able to make those classes, or run five miles, consistently.

Instead of clinging to the idea of exercise needing to be a formally delineated experience, you may need to modify your definition to include:

  • a 20-minute walk or bike ride in normal clothes
  • taking stairs instead of escalators or elevators
  • staying on your feet as much as possible
  • taking a plank break in the office
  • doing quick bodyweight circuits on a fast run
  • in-home workouts with minimal equipment

Walking a lot, taking the stairs, and doing a 20-minute at-home workout can add up!

Strategy #4: Have realistic expectations of results.

When you are in a busy period of life, you may need to shelve your aspirations of six-pack abs or running a marathon, and just focus on staying active and maintaining what you’ve already accomplished.

Heroic, over-the-top fitness goals – whether they are driven by performance or aesthetics – can encourage black-and-white thinking, which takes me back to strategies 2 and 3. During busy times, I urge you to release your self-limiting beliefs that only a certain type of exercise “counts” as exercise, and instead focus on consistency and frequency over intensity.

Small, repeated habits lead to big gains, I promise.

Strategy #5: Practice dietary moderation on a daily basis.

Finally, during intensely busy times, it is more important than ever not to rely on food as a crutch to help you manage stress. This goes beyond dieting or macros or weight loss, and instead focuses on your relationship with stress.

If food is the release valve on your stress tank, then you will have great difficulty maintaining progress during busy times. 

As the saying goes, it is virtually impossible to out-exercise (or “outrun”) a bad diet. You simply do not burn as many calories exercising as you take in when you over-eat. And when you are quite busy, it is likely that you are exercising even less than you normally do.

Look out for stress-related behaviors like:

  • Having multiple snacks in front of the TV at night and staying up too late
  • Indulging in multiple glasses of wine (or your adult beverage of choice) several times a week or every night
  • Sneaking multiple snacks between meals at the office
  • Ordering take-out frequently

And replace them with:

  • Getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night, at approximately the same time each night
  • Taking some time for yourself every day, even if it’s ten minutes to be quiet and unplugged
  • Making time to connect, by calling a friend or getting together with a group of people
  • Having a consistent grocery shopping routine that fills your fridge and pantry with healthy options
  • Doing nice things for yourself like buying new socks or soap
  • Prepping some foods in advance so that you do not have to rely on willpower so much
  • Bringing snacks to work that allow you to decline the office pastries
  • Taking a brisk walk at night to replace part of your evening veg-out routine
  • Learning to say a firm “no” to food behaviors that you know are motivated by boredom, stress, or emotions
  • Going cold turkey on take-out and/or fast food that you know is problematic for you

Don’t worry – if you pass on a snack and you were truly hungry… you’ll know! Your body is very good at giving you accurate cues when you are well-rested and not in tunnel-vision mode. True hunger should always be heeded.

Why is it so important to maintain a healthy lifestyle?

If you have healthy self-interest and a dose of skepticism (as do many of my smart, intuitive clients), you may be asking yourself:

“Why is it so important? My life can’t revolve around fitness all the time.” 

My answer would be: you’re right.

Your life can’t revolve around fitness and wellness and results all the time. At times, it is wise and appropriate to dedicate your focus to resolving a stressful situation, and it can seem like self-care competes with the objective.


You cannot get that time back.

If you are serious about making your life better through fitness, progress goes in both directions. If you completely give up and develop a “I’ll start over again when all of this calms down” mentality, you’ll find that “starting over” is very, very difficult. 60 to 0, and back to 60, is tough.

However, 40 to 60… not so bad! In fact, if you can drop from 60 to 40, it’s not a big jump from 40 to 70. That’s how life-long progress works.

Plus, the complete cessation of self-care does not mean that you will get through a stressful situation any more easily than if you took time to sleep, exercise, and eat healthful foods. The investment in your mental health is minuscule compared to the consequences of burnout. But that’s a topic for another day!

Need some inspiration for a short, in-home workout? Click the button below to get access to my shortest workout ever – you could literally do it every single morning in just a few minutes! It’s a quick circuit blast that will give you a strong foundation for a daily fitness routine, and I know that my busiest clients have benefited from short practices like this!

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Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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