A woman carrying a yoga mat through a gym car park

How to exercise when you’re too busy? Maybe you should skip your workout

Posted by for Workouts

Sometimes life gets out of control, and you don’t need to squeeze another workout into your busy schedule.

The fitness industry hates excuses, but none more so than being too busy or too tired to train. Those reasons for cancelling a workout are often shot down for having very easy solutions: you haven’t prioritised well enough, everyone has 10 minutes to spare for a HIIT circuit, it’s easy to swap your bus ride for a brisk walk.

But, sometimes, being too busy really is a legit reason for not hitting the gym. How can we be so confident when we don’t even know your schedule? Well, because your diary is just a small part of ‘busyness’ – it’s also about the toll that being busy has on your mental and physical wellbeing. Sure, you might be physically able to find a few spare minutes to get your heart rate up, but it’s often not the best idea. 

As strength coach Alice Miller writes in a post on her Instagram: “Imagine you have a glass of water and you’re constantly pouring it out across the week. You went for a morning run before work, tip, you train at lunch, tip, you have a late night out with work colleagues at the pub, tip, you only manage to sleep 5 hours before getting up early to run again, tip.”

She continues: “Our body can only handle so much. All those workouts you put it through, the late nights, the stressful career, the unhealthy diet and the trips to the pub every couple of days all contribute to emptying your cup. Even though a workout can be good for you, it can also do the opposite. Our body struggles to recover when it is in a state of stress.

“If your cup is almost empty (work has been wild and you’ve barely slept) then heading into the gym to wreck yourself on the assault bike or leg press will do your body more harm than good.”

This isn’t just Miller sharing something she thinks her followers want to hear - the science backs it up. While exercise is a stress-reliever in the long-term, in the short-term it raises the body’s stress response. Studies show moderate and intense exercise can raise cortisol levels – the key stress hormone. A 2014 paper also proves Miller’s point about our ability to recover during stress: researchers found that life stress impacted how muscle’s repaired after exercise over a 96-hour period. They recommended that “under conditions of inordinate stress, individuals may need to be more mindful about observing an appropriate length of recovery”.

So, what’s the solution here? Miller suggests that rather than jumping into a HIIT session, you “focus on filling your cup throughout that day (oh hello rest day) and you’ll wake up the next day feeling bloody amazing and that workout will feel great… Because gains are made when the body is in a state where it can recover.”

In order to avoid busyness and stress to the point of cancelling your workouts, she prescribes a minimum of two rest days a week, checking in on your body and not training if you feel 5/10 or less, and walking – importantly, to nowhere in particular, rather than between your back-to-back plans.

The main point is that our ‘always do more’ attitudes aren’t helping our health. We need to see exercise as what it is: an important but often stressful activity. Much like your inbox, workouts require time dedicated to them, and time away from them. Turning down a session when you’re swamped might just be the best thing you could do. 

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).