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An Essay by Justin Alexander

My old exercise program was a brute force affair: Five times a week I would engage in a full suite of exercises involving stretches, sit-ups, push-ups, free weights, an exercise bike, and more. Or, rather, I should say that I attempted to do so five times a week.

The problem was that this exercise program took at least an hour, usually two, to complete. And I would sweat so heavily that I would need to take a shower after completing it. That’s a significant chunk of time, and there are only so many hours in the day. So if I had any kind of social commitment – or was just feeling lazy – the exercises wouldn’t get done. Eventually it would be one missed day… a missed week… a missed month…

… When was the last time I exercised, anyway?

And then your body starts feeling it: You’re lethargic. Your muscles ache after a normal day of activities. You’re so far out of shape that you don’t feel like exercising. (Plus, the exercise bike has become a shelving unit.) It doesn’t take long before that vicious cycle has pulled you right back to where you started.

So I decided to try something different. The problem I was having was that, with a busy schedule, it’s not easy to squeeze an hour or two hours or even half an hour of exercise into your daily routine. Plus, for a lot of exercises to be successful, you need to give your muscles a chance to rest, so you can’t do them every day. As a result, since you simply can’t do it every day, it’s difficult to make exercise habitual.

The concept I embraced was “carpe diem”, seize the day. Or, more accurately in this case, seize the moment. Rather than trying to design a half hour exercise routine to fit into my daily schedule, I found some simple exercises that could be done in a minute or two… and then squeezed them into all those little dead moments between one task and the next throughout my busy day.

Basics: I chose sit-ups and push-ups as my two simple exercises. I started with 10 sit-ups and 5 push-ups, and in less than a month I’ve built myself up to 25 sit-ups and 20 push-ups. I alternate between the two: On one day I’ll do push-ups; on the next I’ll do sit-ups. This gives my muscles a chance to recover and maximizes my results.

Schedule: I do one set first thing in the morning, and then I do another set every hour until the end of my work day. That ends up being eight or nine sets each day. So when I was first doing 10 sit-ups in each routine, I was actually doing 80 or 90 sit-ups each day. Now I’m doing 200 or 225 sit-ups each day.

The trick is not to fret too much about doing the exercises at a specific time. Rather, find those natural moments throughout the day when you’ve got nothing immediate to do or just want a quick break from what you’re doing, then drop down and do a quick set of push-ups.

For example, I try to get a set of “8 o’clock push-ups”, a set of “9 o’clock push-ups”, and so forth. But I don’t worry too much about getting them done at 9 o’clock sharp. If they don’t happen until 9:15 that’s fine. If I’m in a meeting from 9 to 11, I’ll do them every half hour instead of every hour until 1 o’clock and then I’ll be caught up. If I’m having a particularly busy day at work, I’ll squeeze in a couple of quick sets after I get home. (Heck, if I feel like it, I’ll keep doing additional sets throughout the evening.)

Tips: Do the exercises seven days a week. I usually end up taking it a little bit easier on my days off – largely because I’m not as time conscious as I am at the office – but I still make a point of doing them. If you do them every day, it’ll become a habit to do them every day.

Got a desk job? Put a Post-It note on your monitor at work with a single word like: “Push-Ups” or “Sit-Ups” or “Exercise”. Whenever your eye happens to catch the Post-It Note, make a point of getting up and doing a quick set.

Increase the number of repetitions slowly. The best time to make a judgment is in your last couple of sets in a day: If you’re completing those without any real sense of burn, then it’s probably time to add another 5 reps to your routine.

Do you work in a setting or with a dress code that makes it difficult to drop to the floor for sit-ups and push-ups? Find some exercises you can do while still sitting at your desk. Buy some freeweights and set them next to your chair. Or find a nearby conference room you can retreat to for ninety seconds.

Cardiovascular: These carpe diem routines are going to build tone and push your body back into shape. But if you’re looking to lose weight, you’re going to need to burn some calories. And you need solid cardiovascular exercise to keep yourself fit in any case.

Effective cardiovascular exercise takes time; it’s not something you can squeeze into five minute blocks throughout the day. So what you want to do here is find a cardiovascular activity that you can incorporate into something you’re already doing on a daily basis. For most of us, watching television should do the trick.

I’ve got my exercise bike setup so that it faces the television. At the moment, I’ve got a DVD set of Naruto (a half-hour anime series) and another DVD set of Lost (an hour-long drama). These are both shows I really enjoy and that I really want to watch, but I’ve simply promised myself that I will only watch them if I’m peddling on my bike. These give me pre-built 25 minute and 45 minute exercise routines, and I’m eventually going to build up my endurance so that I can handle feature films in one sitting (giving me 90 minute and 120 minute routines, depending on the film).

Since these are shows I want to watch, I’ve got an immediate motivation to get me back on the exercise bike each day, since I want to watch the next episode. (Stuff with cliffhangers at the end of every episode is great.) And since it’s something I would be finding the time to do anyway, I don’t have to go out of my way to find time in my schedule. All I have to do is condition myself to sit on the exercise bike instead of the couch.