How to be active when you have no time

Little changes can add fitness to your day
young woman waiting for bus checking her cell phone

 “The natural force within us is the greatest healer of all.” Hippocrates Circa 450 BC

When people are asked why they aren’t more physically active, the most common answer is that they don’t have enough time. We have built a society that has purposely engineered activity out of our daily lives. 

For example, many manufacturing jobs have disappeared due to automation; with a vacuum cleaner, you no longer have to take your rug outside and beat it. Even watching TV has gotten more sedentary thanks to the remote control.

We also face never-ending pressure to pack more tasks into our day. As a result, many of us do not get the recommended physical activity levels  through our daily routines and have to use our leisure time to exercise. This works for some people but not all.

Adding activity to your routine

One of the first things I tell people is to write out a weekly time chart to see how they are spending their time. Obvious things such as work, household chores and other common commitments are easy to log. But the chart also needs to include things like time spent watching TV and driving places, and other sedentary activities.
Then I suggest they list their goals, such as physical activity, alongside this chart. This can be an eye-opener. Many of us soon realize that how we spend our time doesn’t always match our goals.

We can usually reduce some current activities unrelated to our goals, in order to make time for what matters, such as physical activity.We also need to find ways to engineer activity back into our lives.

More exercise, more time

There’s an impression that being active takes away time. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Heart and Stroke recommends adults should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.  In fact, in plenty of situations, walking or cycling can be the fastest way to move around town. Here are some ways to increase your activity while being more efficient:

  • Walking up to two flights of stairs is generally quicker than waiting for and taking an elevator. In some buildings finding the stairs is not obvious. Several studies have found that stair use increases with posting a simple sign by the elevators indicating where the stairs are.
  • Park further from your destination. Many of us will drive around a mall parking lot until we find the closest parking spot to the door – wasting precious minutes. It can often be quicker to park at the first spot you see, even the furthest one away, and walk to the door.
  • Conduct errands either by bicycle or walking. If you live in or near the city centre, walking or cycling can be quicker than driving, especially during rush hour. In addition, it can save you money on parking.
  • Do more chores. We recently demonstrated that doing household chores is an effective way to increase physical activity and reduce risk for heart disease and premature death.

The examples above are just a few ways to fit more activity into your life. Other ideas include going for a walk during a lunch break; this helps get some activity in while also making you fresher for the afternoon. And instead of sitting down at a desk, try walking meetings with your colleagues. 

Even with these changes, some people may still need to be more active and wish to exercise so they can get their heart rate up. Fitting in activity during social visits is also a good way to go, whether walking with friends or playing tennis or a game of basketball.

As you increase your daily activity you may wish to monitor your progress. For many of the suggestions above, a pedometer will tell you how well you are doing by taking the stairs and walking for errands.

Being active ourselves also helps the people around us. We are role models whether we know it or not. So when you are more active, it sends a message to your family, friends and neighbours that they can do it too.

  • Find resources to help you reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Dr. Scott Lear

Dr. Scott Lear is a leading researcher in the prevention and management of heart disease. He holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, and he is a professor in the faculty of health sciences and the department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Lear also lives with heart disease himself. Follow his blog at