How to Work Out at Work Without Messing Up Your Entire Day

Don’t let a return to the office derail your exercise plan.
How to Work Out at Work Without Messing Up Your Entire Day
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Despite the seismic shift toward remote work culture over the past three years, people are (however reluctantly) heading back to the office. That might be good news for those who thrive on watercooler catchups, but not quite as positive for the folks who have been squeezing in exercise between Zoom meetings.

So what does this mean for your weekday workouts? With a little planning, you can still keep your Monday to Friday routine, even if you’ve migrated back to a desk.

There’s solid reason to do so too. Prioritizing exercise can actually make you better at your job: Employees who moved more showed increases in productivity and efficiency and a reduction in absenteeism in a 2017 study published in BMC Public Health. And those who exercised during working hours were not only better at time management, but they also felt more satisfied with their jobs, older research from the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found.

But making time for a routine that’s going to make you feel better—and not stress you out—can be a little tricky. Dicey, but not impossible. We chatted with fitness, nutrition, and HR pros for tips on how to make a workday workout work for you.  

1. First, decide when you’ll work out during the day.

There’s no one best time to exercise during the day—it all depends on your schedule and what’s doable in your place of business—but for many people, it’s going to be around lunchtime.

If you work in an environment where people often leave for a “lunch hour,” this might be the easiest time to get away, since you can just head out. Otherwise, you may want to talk to your manager first about blocking off time. “Be very specific about what it is that you’re asking for and why,” Greg Hill, the chief people officer at Exos, a performance brand that trains professional athletes and corporate clients based in Tempe, Arizona, tells SELF. “The example I typically use is, ‘I’m asking to schedule an hour to myself two or three times a week, and this is why I think it would be good for me and good for the team.’” If your intended workout has you stepping away for more than an hour, you can also ask about flexibility to make up the extra time later.

“I have clients in different time zones, so if I work out in the middle of the day and need to work a little longer into the evening, I’m okay with that—in fact, it makes for a nice balance,” Charly Rok, a vice president at Edelman in New York City who runs daily during the workday, tells SELF.  

Once you get the green light, treat that time like anything else on your schedule. “Block off your calendar—that’s the most important part of actually getting away to do it,” Hill says.

If you’re in the kind of job where leaving for an hour or so will be more stress-inducing than stress-relieving, consider taking mini breaks instead, like 20 minutes for a quick workout in the morning and another 20 in the afternoon, says Hill. Basically, you’re looking for whatever timing allows you to feel strong and centered rather than unfocused and frazzled.

2. Come up with a workout plan for the week.

Successfully integrating exercise into your day may require reframing what a “workout” is in your mind. “Every workout counts, no matter how small,” Kelly Borowiec, an ACE-certified personal trainer based in San Francisco, tells SELF. Even short bouts come with perks like higher energy, reduced stress, and better blood flow, she says. Any amount of physical activity brings along benefits.

So instead of prioritizing 45- or 60-minute routines—which, let’s be honest, probably aren’t going to happen in the confines of a regular workday—focus more on what you can get done in 15, 20, or 30 minutes (or less!). 

One great way to maximize your time is through high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. With HIIT, you do multiple rounds of exercises that increase your heart rate followed by periods of lower-energy moves or recovery, says Borowiec. You could do cardio-based HIIT on a treadmill or bike, a strength-based HIIT routine that incorporates weights and bodyweight exercises, or a HIIT workout that combines cardio and strength.

“I teach HIIT for a lot of corporate clients at Google, and I love that style of training because it’s an all-in-one package: You’re getting your heart rate up and you’re doing strength training,” says Borowiec. Plus, because of its high work-to-rest ratio, you get lots done in way less time.

If you’re planning on fitting in multiple workouts during the week, alternating modalities—say, strength training one day, cardio HIIT the next, then yoga—can be a great way to boost your overall fitness without taking a full hour from each day. For example, a 2022 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that just 30 to 60 minutes a week of strength training may be enough for long-term health benefits. If you’re looking for workout ideas that fit the bill, you can try:

You may also want to factor in the intensity of your intended workout when planning your week too. For instance, if you know you don’t have access to a shower (and that you’ll need to run straight into a meeting after you return), you may want to choose strength training or a lower-impact workout like walking or yoga versus super sweaty options like HIIT or jogging.

3. Then, decide where you’re going to exercise. 

If your workplace has a gym, this will definitely be the most time-conducive option. If not, you’ll have to do a little research about your area. 

Looking for an indoor option where you can do strength training or machine cardio—or stream your own class options? A commercial gym is probably going to be your best bet. This will give you more flexibility than you’d get at boutique studios, which tend to offer traditional 45- to 60-minute classes that may make timing a bit tight. Yes, you’ll have to allot travel time to get to the gym, but once you’re there you should be able to get right into it. (Some workplaces may also have empty, unused spaces where you can do a quick equipment-free routine on your own, too, like a yoga flow or bodyweight circuit.)

For those who’d rather take it outdoors, walking, cycling, and jogging are all great options for your physical and mental health. You can use an app like AllTrails to explore local paths—yes, even in the middle of the city.

The key: “Don’t strive for perfection, or this all-or-nothing mentality,” says Borowiec. “It’s really a continuum. Start small with a workout you enjoy—and build and refine from there.”

4. Make your transition between working and working out as smooth as possible.

The trick to squeezing in a routine is minimizing the amount of time you need to get ready before and after exercise. Depending on how sweaty you get, for example, certain work clothes can double as workout wear. “I often wear workout clothing underneath my work clothes to simplify and expedite my mid-day run,” Rok says. “I just take off the top layer, put on my sneakers, and off I go.” 

Athleta, Lululemon, and Target have some great options that you can dress up or down, Abby Chan, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and strength coach at Evolve Flagstaff, tells SELF. Chan loves the Vuori Miles Ankle Pant, which has a hidden cinch waistband to keep the front of the pant looking professional, but is still soft and stretchy enough for low-intensity workouts. These options below can work too.

Lululemon Align High-Rise Pant

Athleta Endless Pant

If you won’t be wearing your workwear, keeping options at the ready can be helpful for both a planned workout and an impromptu one. “I have a drawer in my office that has a change of workout clothes and my gym shoes,” Chan says. 

When it comes to freshening up afterward, the type of workout—and how much you sweat—can determine how involved the process will be. If you’re showering, skip shaving or even hair-washing (as long as you’re not totally sweat-soaked) in favor of a quick full-body rise. 

If you’re not showering, stock a toiletry bag with hygiene essentials. Chan and Rok both keep deodorant, facial and body wipes, dry shampoo (Chan likes Amika’s Perk Up Dry Shampoo), lotion, and makeup in their bags. “I also love having a cooling face spray, like the ultracalming mist from Dermalogica, or Herbivore’s Jasmine Green Tea Oil Control Toner—it’s so refreshing,” says Chan.

5. Fuel properly for your workout, no matter when it is.

Deciding when to eat when can be tricky because you don’t want to enter your routine famished, but you also don’t want to go all in right after a full meal. That can cause stomach issues as your body shifts blood to your working muscles as opposed to your GI tract, which can slow down digestion and lead to uncomfortable symptoms, says Chan, like cramping or diarrhea. 

If you’re working out on your lunch hour, you should eat something beforehand, since you can’t maximize a workout of any length if you’re exercising under-fueled. “Eating a small snack with carbohydrates 15 to 30 minutes before your workout will give you an extra boost of energy,” says Chan. Opt for carbs that are lower in fiber—like a piece of white toast with nut butter or pureed fruit packets, rather than, say, an apple; they’ll be more easily digested and you won’t run the risk of GI issues, she adds. 

Then make sure to follow up your workday workout with a full meal, says Chan. Enjoy food that is “rich in protein to promote muscle and tissue recovery, carbohydrates to help replenish [energy], some sort of fat to keep you full and help you absorb nutrients, and some color from fruits or vegetables to meet your vitamin and mineral needs,” says Chan. Try options like:

  • grain bowl with roasted vegetables and tofu or chicken topped with your favorite dressing or sauce
  • salad with chickpeas and chicken or tempeh and dressing
  • A turkey wrap with veggies with a side of your favorite crunchy snack such as chips, pretzels, or seasonal fruit
  • A peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread with a side of yogurt for a really portable option

No matter what your daily schedule looks like, you’re not actually chained to your desk. Using even a few of these tips can help you set better boundaries around your time so you can have a healthier—and more productive—workday.