Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Small is beautiful

Time is always an issue when it comes to scheduling workouts.  I do my best to make sure I get a solid hour workout in, ideally twice per week, in my garage gym (usually some variation of squats, deadlifts or weighted chin-ups).  With all the demands of work, family, life, etc. that uninterrupted time sometimes seems like an extravagance.  It’s absolutely glorious when it happens.  But what about all the other times, when you don’t have an hour to yourself to do whatever you want?  That’s where very short, simple workouts come into play.  It would almost be better to call them something else – Micro-workouts maybe.  Essentially they involve strategically using opportunities throughout the day to get some quick, intense exercise in.

The trick, I find at least, is to fit this stuff in wherever the opportunity arises and to capitalize on time that might otherwise be wasted.  In order to work, micro-workouts need to have the following characteristics:

  1. Require little to no equipment
  2. Require no warm-up
  3. Not demand special clothes or a shower afterwards
  4. Make use of small chunks of downtime or otherwise ‘wasted’ time
Perhaps the best way to describe this is through examples.  

Most mornings I take my daughter to school (about 1km from our house).  I could drop her off in the car on my way in to work, but instead I walk her there (also good exercise for her) and then sprint back to my house before going to work.  The 1km sprint is a good mini-workout for me, and it essentially takes advantage of otherwise wasted time.  Walking her to school and sprinting back takes hardly any more time than if I were to bundle her into a car seat, drive to the school, park, unbundle her from the car seat, etc., etc.  I still get the same time to chat with her while we walk there, and then I can gun it home as fast as possible for a little bit of a burn in the morning.  Another option I’ve been using, on winter days when I have to drop off both my kids in the morning (one at school and one at daycare), is to pull them there (running) in a little plastic sled ($13).  They actually love it and it’s a quick workout for me.

Little bits of downtime work too.  I can’t drop my daughter off at school until 8:45, and this morning we happened to be ready to go a few minutes early.  So before we walked to school, she asked if we could do some exercise.  When she says this she tends to mean me doing some sort of exercise with her and her brother hanging off me as ‘weights’.  This morning it was push-ups with two kids (roughly 80lbs) on my back until I collapsed.  Only took a minute or two, but it was good!

Another opportunity is small breaks that occur throughout the work day.  Now, I’ve already written in another post about my preference for a bicycle commute.  I used to bike all winter, prior to having kids, but now I’m a big baby.  As soon as there’s a significant amount of snow and ice on the ground, I chicken out and usually take the car.  Just a personal choice for me as a father – I totally applaud others who bike all year round.  I’ve also made it pretty clear on this blog that I’m a cheap bastard.  I don’t want to pay $100 a month to park at work (esp. when I only drive during the winter months) so I take advantage of 3 hour street parking near my building.  What that means is that I have to move my car twice per day to avoid a ticket (Once at around noon and once at around 3pm).  However, these are great opportunities to get a brief spell of exercise into a fairly sedentary workday.  On average I park about 500 metres from my building.  Therefore, to sprint to my car, move it a few blocks, and then sprint back to work takes between 5 and 7 minutes.  It allows me to clock another 2 km of running throughout the course of a workday.  And rather than being a distraction, it’s also a good mental break.  I find that I often come up with new ideas or remember a forgotten task while I’m running to move my car.  It actually increases productivity most of the time.  Plus, it’s a short break from all the sitting that one does in an office job.  Sitting is a slow death, really, so minimize it as much as possible.  I have a friend who does the same ritual of moving his car throughout the day, although he uses the opportunity to crank out a few chin-ups, en route, on a nearby tree branch.  Where I used to work, they were always doing repairs to the building and I used to take 5 minute breaks to do pull-ups/toes-to-bars, etc. on the metal scaffolding by the building entrance.  The possibilities really are endless.

In a recent post I talked about lunchtime workouts.  These needn’t be marathon sessions.  For instance, I did ring muscle-ups at lunch yesterday, on the way back from moving my car.  Only 3 sets and it took only 8 minutes from start to finish.  Today I threw in a few sets of one-legged squats and reactive jumps on a low cement wall outside my building.

Other little breaks can be found throughout the day as well.  On my way to the washroom, I often stop in the stairwell and crank out 2-3 sets of handstand push-ups.  It bothers nobody (the stairwell on the seventeenth floor is sadly deserted most of the time).  I suck at handstand push-ups and can only get a few reps per set, so the whole process might take 3-5 minutes max.  Very easy to fit that in!  I did so on three separate occasions during my workday today.

There’s absolutely nothing special about these specific ideas, and nothing unique about my situation.  Many other ideas might be even better.  It all depends on your specific context.  Start to think of your environment as a potential playground.  What could provide a physical challenge?  How might you fit some short, intense physical challenge into your daily routine?  We need to get away from treating a ‘workout’ only as some daunting, lengthy session that requires special clothes, special location, long warm-ups, showers, etc.  That can be great, sometimes, but there’s also something to be gained by taking advantage of the stuff at the margins, the ‘wasted’ space, the small, serendipitous opportunities here and there.