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A Fitness Guide for People With No Free Time (And Who Are Always Stress-Eating)

This installment of The Normal Person’s Workout offers advice for a man overrun by work and children

Don’t have three hours a day to spend at the gym? Not interested in bulging like a bodybuilder? Unmoved by promises of “fat-blasting, ab-chiseling monster workouts”? This is the column for you, fellow regular human with very little free time.

The Man

Michael, Portland, Oregon
Height: 5’8”
Weight: 210 pounds
Goal: Weight loss

His Time Commitment (Or Lack Thereof): “I have two young kids, so I try to get into the office by 7 a.m. and leave around 4 p.m.,” Michael tells us. “Trying to exercise in the afternoon is hard because I want to get home as soon as possible to spend time with my kids, and early morning is hard because I’m always stressed about work and trying to focus as much as I can on that.”

Stress impacts more than just Michael’s desire to work out, however. “I stress-eat at all my meals, and stress drink a lot, too,” he admits. “I get around seven hours of sleep a night. I also should mention that I travel a lot, at least a week a month, usually more, so that throws in some fun complexities.”

Exercise He’s Actually Willing to Do: “I always seem to need to do something more important than exercise, which means I need a routine that’s quick,” says Michael. “I actually enjoy working out and can easily do 4- to 7-mile runs or a strenuous workout (lifting weights, CrossFit, whatever). The time commitment is the biggest problem.”

What He Wants: “I need some balance of doing right by my kids, working enough, getting exercise and losing weight — something that magically and seamlessly fits into my schedule. Gaining strength would be nice, too — I’d like to be able to do a marathon, although that’s more of a vague goal than something I’ve ever worked at. I don’t think of myself as being particularly weak in general, just fat.”

The Plan

Think About Your Future: “At your age and height, you should be about 150 pounds,” says personal trainer Lalo Fuentes. “Wanting to spend the most amount of time with your kids while putting your health at risk sounds charming, but it’s a bad move in the long run. You might think that taking 30 minutes from your daddy-and-kids time every day is too much, but if you continue on your unhealthy path, you could potentially be taking 10 years away from them in the future.”

Realize That Your Kids Are the Best Way To Stay in Shape: “This is a great time to teach your kids the importance and benefits of good health,” says Fuentes. “Rather than trying to find extra time for yourself, make your workouts part of your time with your kids. Depending on their age, do activities with them that require physical effort for all of you: Sports, movement and exercise should be part of your family lifestyle, so use your imagination to create games that require movement.”

Here are some games Fuentes suggests:

  • Balloon Volleyball: “Blow up a balloon and set up the couch in the middle of the room. The purpose of this game is to play both sides of the court — this means that every time you hit the balloon, you have to run to the other side and hit the balloon again before it hits the ground. You can play this with numbers like a regular volleyball game, so try to score 21 points.”
  • Follow the Leader: “In this game, imagine you’re a fitness instructor. Whatever you do, your kids have to do the same or they lose. Try dancing, doing jumping jacks, running in place, touching the floor, etc. The idea is to keep all of you moving for 20 to 45 minutes, taking some breaks if you need them.”
  • Animal Races: “You can put together races mimicking different animal moves. Try one race as a bunny, where you all have to hop. Do a race as a crab, walking sideways and one as an iguana, walking on all fours close to the floor. You can come up with as many variations as you like.”
  • Sack Race: “This is a fun game every kid loves, but unfortunately, it’s normally only practiced during birthday parties. Do this at home with your children if you have a garden.”

Most of all, Fuentes says, “It’s important to let your kids know when this fun time is going to happen — this will make them look forward to their exciting time with Dad, and in turn, they’ll make sure to keep you accountable.”

Get Even More Ambitious: “Motivate your children to run a 5k and become their coach,” Lalo suggests. “A few weeks before the race, you will have to train them by going out for runs around the neighborhood. Running 5ks could become your new hobby to do with them.”

Set Your Kids Up for Life: “When kids become adolescents and move away from home, they tend to do things they used to do when they were little whenever they unconsciously get homesick. This is where their future is in your hands: When they want comfort, they can turn to fast food and warm cookies, or they can channel their homesickness with the healthy activities they fondly associate with their dad.”

Finally, if You Eat When You’re Stressed, Eat Something Healthier: “Drink lots of water and have some carrots or celery available for when you need to eat at work during stressful moments.”

The Reaction

Is This the Sort of Workout You Expected, Michael?: “Frankly, no. One of my kids is 2 and the other is 8 months, and trying to keep a 2-year-old’s attention on anything for 45 minutes is a pretty tall order. As they get older, I can see this being more applicable, and I love the idea of being able to spend 45 minutes doing active things with them. But I don’t see this as some heroic must-kill-myself-by-being-there-for-my-kids thing — it’s as much about wanting to help my wife as it is about being there for them.”

What Do You Think of the Idea That This Will Positively Impact Your Kids’ Futures?: “Based on my own history, I think that’s a great call-out, and one that resonates. In my mind, it reinforces the priority of figuring things out, and making sure that exercises that are occasional right now, like running with a jogging stroller, become more routine.”

Can You Really See Yourself Stress-Eating Celery?: “We actually have celery and carrot packs in the office! I will often eat one, but then also grab something unhealthy. So, uh, we’ll see.”