"Dad, can you skip the gym today and spend time with us instead?"
This simple question from my daughter, early on a Saturday morning, crushed me. Growing up without a father, I had vowed to spend as much time with my kids as possible -- especially when they were younger, when they really needed my guidance and time.
On weekdays, I have the countless responsibilities that go with work; the weekends are supposed to be family time. This Saturday morning, though, I was heading out to a workout for myself.
But hearing that question, and seeing the look on my daughter's face, made me realize I had to find a way to get my workouts done quickly and efficiently so they wouldn't impact the time I had for my girls.
If you're in a similar situation -- constantly going at full speed while trying to be productive at work, spend quality time with your family and make progress in the gym -- you're probably beginning to feel that something has to give. And you're right. As hard as we try, it's just not possible to achieve everything every day.
As a busy father of three, holding down two jobs, I learned this the hard way.
But experience -- and science -- has taught me something else: Contrary to what you might have heard, you don't need to spend hours every day in the gym to get results. By modifying the way you work out and manage your time, you actually can achieve more than you thought you could.
When time is limited, go for maximal intensity through some sort of interval training. Or use some sort of strength complex or circuit.
Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance University, Baltimore, Maryland
The Surprising Better Way
The first thing to do is forget about the programs that require four, five or six days a week at the gym. They just aren't necessary. It's entirely possible to train, strengthen and progress in less time than those sorts of programs demand.
If you're like most fitness enthusiasts, your workout probably consists of five to six upper or lower body exercises, with three to five sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each exercise. The typical rest period between a set can be as much as two to three minutes -- and even longer if you're talking with friends.
You can increase the intensity and effectiveness of your training session by making a few changes: Modify the number of repetitions you perform for each set, decrease the rest period between sets, and incorporate compound movements or even increase the amount of weight you lift.
The simplest way to put these factors into action is to replace your traditional workout with full-body, strength-training circuits. Training both your upper and lower body in the same workout is the key to cutting your time in the gym in half.
Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance University in Baltimore, Maryland, agrees. "When time is limited, go for maximal intensity through some sort of interval training. Or use some sort of strength complex or circuit."
Create a circuit by performing six to eight resistance exercises back to back with minimal to no rest in between. You can perform each exercise for a certain length of time, typically 30 seconds, or for a specific number of repetitions, usually eight to 12.
By decreasing the rest period and incorporating compound movements -- exercises that use several muscle groups -- the workout intensity increases and so do the training effects. You'll burn calories not only while you're working out, but also after you've left the gym. A study published in the March 2002 issue of "European Journal of Applied Physiology" found that when the training group performed a high-intensity, short-duration workout with compound exercises, their resting metabolism was raised for 38 hours after the workout.
As your strength endurance increases, you can go through the circuit two to four times. If you're a novice lifter, performing circuits with simple body weight, dumbbell or dynamic mobility exercises is the best way to build a solid strength foundation.
Make Habits of Lifestyle Changes
Once you start decreasing your time in the gym, you'll want to work on assimilating good habits into the rest of your day. This will help you maintain a healthier lifestyle and free up more time for your family.
Alwyn Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness in California, believes habits are easy to create.
"Do a new task every single day for 21 days, and you've created a habit," he advised, adding that the right habits "can change your life."
In my case, I started preplanning and packing my meals the night before. This helped me stick to a good nutrition plan and prevented me from skipping meals then binging on bad food when I got a moment to eat.
I also focused on getting enough sleep. This meant turning off the television and the laptop at the same time every night and getting to bed. Additionally, I took my vitamins and supplements right before bed with a big glass of water.
To make myself accountable, I started a time log, writing down all of my activities for the day in half-hour increments. After keeping the time log for a week, I was able to identify "time wasters" that I could change or eliminate altogether from my schedule. I couldn't believe how much time I wasted checking email, messaging on the phone and doing other unneeded random activities.
Setting Goals and Taking Action
At this point you've decreased your time in the gym and eliminated your daily time wasters. Your next step is to write down where you are and where you want to go. Determine your personal and professional goals, but ensure they're attainable and measurable.
This simple action alone gave me focus and direction. But I also knew it was one thing to write down goals and quite another to take action.
The reason most people don't take action is that their goals are either overwhelming or not inspiring. So pick something you really want to do, and instead of setting your sights only on the long-term goal, write down the smaller tasks you need to accomplish on the way to the larger goal.
These days, people have less free time than ever before. Fitness often becomes an afterthought, pushed aside for more pressing tasks. But if you make your time both in and out of the gym more efficient, you can slowly reintroduce fitness back into your daily routine and still have time for the rest of your life.