Weighing In: How can I fit healthy eating and physical activity into my busy life?

Patient Expert

Question: I really need help finding a diet and exercise plan that I will stick to. I am always extremely busy. I go to college full time and I work as a waitress around 30 hours a week. Between classes, homework, work, family, friends, & errands, I don't have much time for anything else. I have tried many different diet and exercise plans over the course of the past 4 or 5 years. I can never stick with them because once my work or school schedule changes, my exercise plan or diet plan conflicts with it. It's hard for me to eat healthy all the time because I have to eat out a lot when I'm not at home. I love going to the gym, but I am not a morning person and I like to relax at night. Maybe I'm just making excuses, but I just feel too tired to work out when I actually have some free time. I am exhausted from the other parts of my life. Please help me

Heather: Dear Reader, Thanks for this important question!

It's not easy to fit physical activity and healthy eating into a busy lifestyle. I completely understand because I, too, find that whenever my schedule changes, my exercise regimen and healthy eating are the first things to give. Over the years I've realized that I have to make time to get to the gym and grocery store and pack my lunch because my schedule isn't going to conveniently have time set aside for those things. Ultimately we only have time for what we make time for. It does sound like you are focusing on putting up barriers to these behaviors rather than tearing them down. We all want time for ourselves, especially after a busy day! Try to think of the time you spend exercising as time for yourself, especially since it is something that you enjoy. Hopefully on most days you'll have more than just that time for yourself, but on busy days at least you're assured to have that time devoted just to you.

In my current job I've found that I can not depend on getting out of the office by a certain time, which makes it hard to get to the gym for the classes I like. And once I've missed the class I like it's hard to get up the motivation to go to one that I'm not too crazy about. I'm not a morning person either, but I realized that if I didn't get my workouts done in the morning, I wasn't likely to fit them in. When I started taking a 6 a.m. aerobics class it was HARD to get up that early. But after time it became a habit and now I get up and am out the door before I even realize. Trust me, I didn't believe the people who told me I would adjust to working out so early - but I did and you can too.

Here's how I did it.

I'm a snooze button abuser - I'll hit it without even fully waking up. I knew that if I set the alarm next to my bed for 5:20 a.m. by the time I realized I had been hitting snooze it would be almost 6:00 a.m. and too late to make the class. So I set an alarm in my bathroom and then set the one next to my bed for 10 minutes later. When the alarm in my bathroom goes off I have to get out of bed and walk into the other room to shut it off. By then I am awake enough that when the alarm by my bed goes off 10 minutes later I get up and get ready. I also lay my workout clothes out the night before so I have every second of sleep possible. This works really well for me.

Next week I'm going to start a new job and I've already contacted my supervisor about work hours so I can schedule my workouts into my new routine before it even starts. I know that if I don't have a plan in place, my workouts will fall to the wayside and once that happens it can take months for me to get back on track! If you really enjoy relaxing in the evenings than it's safe to assume you're going to find every reason in the book to go home instead of the gym so I suggest working out in the morning. From one non-morning person to another, I know it seems like a daunting task but try it for a few weeks and I think you'll find that your mornings aren't the same if they don't begin with a workout.

Finding time to prepare healthy meals is much the same, you need to schedule it into your day - especially when you are really busy because it's so much easier to stop somewhere on the way home. Trust me, I totally understand where you're coming from. When things get really busy and overwhelming I, too, lose sight of the fact that grocery shopping and cooking healthy meals are not luxuries. These are vital tasks that have to be part of your schedule. There's no point in working so hard that you can't take care of yourself because ultimately you won't be healthy enough to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

If you were having guests over for dinner, would you stop on your way home from work and pick-up fast food? No, you'd probably prepare a nice meal for your guests and you should treat yourself the same. You deserve a healthy, home-cooked meal. Have you tried preparing a week's worth of meals on the weekends? This is a great way to have healthy meals on hand when you get home after a long day of school and work and don't feel like cooking. I'm also a huge fan of my local grocery store salad bar - it's quick, easy and healthy.

I think the key to sticking to a diet and exercise plan in your situation is to really sit down and plan ahead. If your schedule changes weekly than try to sit down at the beginning of each week and plan your workouts and food preparation times for the week. Your health is the most important thing and you need to take the time to maintain it.

For more information, check out this post I wrote last year on the subject.