You have a big presentation at work. Your daughter’s soccer team made it into the junior league playoffs. The dog has an eye infection. The in-laws are coming for a weeklong visit. And that’s just what you have on your plate this week. With only 24 hours in a day to squeeze in all of life’s must-dos, it’s not surprising the number-one reason people don’t exercise is because they don’t think they have the time.
But putting life on hold for 30 to 45 minutes at a time isn’t the only way to get this recommended amount of daily exercise. “Doing something is always better than doing nothing,” says Karen Merrill, a Hawaii-based certified personal trainer, clinical exercise specialist, weight-loss management consultant, and the American Council on Exercise’s Personal Trainer of the Year. “The ‘somethings’ can really add up. If you can get in three different 10-minute sessions a day, you’ll be well on your way to increased energy levels, lean muscle mass, strength, cardiovascular capacity, and more.” Those are the same benefits as if you exercised in one fell swoop, but without having to find a big chunk of time in your schedule to do it.
Straight from the pros, here are five brief workouts, each targeting a different aspect of fitness. To help you squeeze these in throughout your day—at the office, on the soccer sidelines, or while waiting for the bus—these moves require nothing at all, or just small pieces of equipment you can take nearly anywhere with you. So get to it. After all, every minute counts.
As kids, we jumped roped for fun. As adults, we can jump rope for a fun, high-intensity workout. A 135-pound woman will burn 108 calories jumping rope for ten minutes. That’s the same as running a ten-minute mile or swimming laps at a vigorous pace for the same amount of time. And jumping rope isn’t just about burning calories; because it’s a weight-bearing exercise, jumping rope increases mineral bone density, important for preventing osteoporosis.
For those whose knees or back might keep them from doing this exercise, try parking your car a half-mile or so away from your office or the grocery store and walking to the entrance. “You’d be surprised at the results you’ll see just from doing this for a week or two,” Merrill says. Stairstepping is another option. Find or make a step that’s at least 12 inches high. Step up first with one foot and then the other. Step down with the first foot and follow with the second. Keep the rhythm moving on an up-one-two, down-one-two pace for ten minutes. Merrill likes this exercise because it does double duty: It’s a cardio workout and also strengthens the lower body.
Upper body (3–4x/week with 24 hours rest in between)
“For overall upper body, nothing beats the standard push-up,” says Carol Scott, a certified personal trainer and instructor at Equinox Fitness in New York City. “It’s the most efficient exercise that works all the muscles in the chest, back, and arms.” Beginners should start on their knees with the goal of progressing to legs fully extended and, for the advanced, alternating one leg in the air at a time.
Scott recommends starting with sets of 8 and gradually increasing to sets of 15. To make the most of ten minutes, do three sets each of three kinds of push-ups: arms shoulder-width apart, arms wide (about three feet apart), and arms close (less than a foot apart). Each targets different muscles.
Lower body (3–4x/week with 24 hours rest in between)
All you need is a wall to do one of the best lower-body toning and strengthening exercises around: wall sits. Stand with your back against a wall and walk your feet out a foot or so, says Merrill. Slowly slide down into a sitting position, stopping when your quads are parallel to the floor. (You should have no knee discomfort.) If your knees extend beyond the tips of your toes, adjust your foot placement so that your knees are directly over your ankles. Hold this position for five seconds and then slowly slide back up. Aim for three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions each. Those with back problems can do this same exercise with an exercise ball placed between your back and the wall for support.
Stretching (recommended daily)
Often seen as a treat for your body and thus neglected as part of a workout, stretching is essential to any fitness program. Flexibility training increases physical and mental relaxation, releases muscle tension and soreness, reduces risk of injury, and allows greater freedom of movement and improved posture.
For those who can’t fit in an entire yoga class, a few minutes of downward-facing dog stretches lower and upper calves, hamstrings, quads, back, shoulders, and chest, says Scott. To get into downward-facing dog position, start on your hands (shoulder-width apart) and knees (feet hip-width apart). Fingers should be spread wide. Exhale while straightening your legs and stretching your buttocks as high as you can toward the ceiling while keeping arms and legs straight. Relax your head toward the floor and breathe deeply. Stretch your chest in the direction of your feet. Pair that pose with a cat stretch—on all fours, evenly distribute your weight over all four limbs, keeping your arms straight; flex and arch your back with your head extended, then curl and roll your back up (bring your belly button up and into your back) while rolling your neck and head in and down—and you’ve hit most of the major muscles. Scott recommends holding the cat position for five seconds and repeating five times.
Scott also warns not to stretch muscles that aren’t warmed up. Do your ten minutes of stretching either after you’ve already done ten minutes of something else or immediately after a hot shower or bath, when muscles are relaxed. Stretching before you get out of bed in the morning—a few full-body stretches pointing the toes and reaching your arms above your head—is another easy option and can help you wake up.
Want to lessen your chances of suffering from chronic back pain, falling, or having workout injuries? Then work on your balance. One way to do so is standing barefoot—a move that sounds easy until you try it. “Shoes, especially athletic shoes, offer stability; we’re not used to having to maintain it on our own,” Merrill says. After you’ve mastered standing barefoot, you can increase the difficulty by standing barefoot on one leg then closing your eyes, but make sure you’re in an area where you can quickly stabilize yourself. Follow this exercise with one Scott recommends: Bend at the waist and lift one leg straight behind you. Hold the position for 30 seconds (if you can) and repeat five to ten times with each leg. As your balance improves, add hand weights and extend your arms forward. You can also do this exercise lifting your leg to the side rather than behind you.
Jackson, Wyoming-based freelance writer Dina Mishev needs as many ten-minute sessions as she can get to stay in shape for climbing, skiing, hiking, and biking.