• Ash Radford

Time pressure can actually be really useful for working out

'I don’t have time.'

It tops the list of reasons for not exercising. It’s no great surprise, people seem busier than ever.

What though, if time pressure could help you get exercise done, and done well?

"If you want something done ask a busy person"


Benjamin Franklin was onto something. We all know those busy people who are more reliable for getting stuff done than those with less going on.

You’ve likely had that experience with your own output. A day with an empty schedule can mean a lack of urgency to get things done. Despite having the time and the best of intentions, you can sit down for your evening meal wondering how you squandered so many hours.

Conversely you’ve probably felt purposeful and effective after days you’ve had places to be and people to meet.

Man with brief case bouding along while hurrying to work
Photo by Andy Beales on Unsplash

The arousal theory of motivation


This psychological theory is that motivation is dictated by arousal level.

High arousal level means increased alertness. When faced with a tight but achievable deadline arousal level and motivation typically rise.

This is not just concept. There’s physical change when arousal level lifts. 2 hormones in particular flood the body- serotonin and dopamine. They contribute to a lift in mood and increased productivity.

When arousal, and those boosting hormones are low, exercise can feel impossible. You’ve felt it, I’ve felt it and we’ll definitely feel it again!


The physical effects of stress can help


Related to arousal is stress.

Again, this is not mere concept. Adrenaline and cortisol pump through the body. This causes an increase in heart rate and breathing rate (lungs dilate). Plus, your liver releases glucose for energy and more blood flows to muscles.

Your nervous system and hormones really kick into action when time pressure creates stress. Priming you to fight or take flight.

If you think about it, your body is ideally prepared for 1 particular activity….. exercise!

Not only does stress prime you for exercise, a good workout goes a long way to bringing your body back to balance. It’s why it’s advised for managing stress.

Stress rightly cops the blame for lots of health problems but it’s not all bad. You can use it for the purpose it evolved i.e. to move with enough speed and vigour to survive!


When the pressure becomes too much


Sky high stress levels however will take you beyond a point useful for exercise.

Associated with the Arousal Theory of Motivation is the Yerkes Dobson law. This states there’s an optimal level of arousal (or pressure) for performance. This level varies between activities.

Beyond a moderate degree of arousal, you get worse at complex, intricate tasks.

On the other hand, when you’re under greater pressure you get better at things which take high exertion, but not a lot of technique. Exercise falls into that category. Clearly that’s good news if stressed and wanting to exercise. However, even fitness output and motivation can drop if the stress and pressure is too high.

Countless times I’ve seen personal training clients arrive at sessions looking on the verge of collapse. Many of them lawyers and bankers in the midst of a big case or brokering a deal.

At that level, muscles gets so tense that exercising with any intensity brings risk of injury and pain. There’s also a strong chance of getting run down and sick. Neither of which helps to deal with ongoing work pressure or keeping exercise consistent.

Light exercise becomes the best option. Walking or stretching, while not tough workouts, are still of benefit. Both help to reduce stress levels and provide a circuit breaker from the pressure situation.

Something is better than nothing. There’s plenty of positive physical effects from short and easy bouts of exercise. Just as importantly, if you keep moving it’ll help to solidify fitness as habit.

Exercise is not a panacea though. You need to keep stress and time pressure within reasonable limits.

Chronic high stress can suppress the release of serotonin. That makes it hard to feel uplifted, increasing the risk of depression.

You can’t rely on a high-pressure lifestyle to power you on forever.


How to use stress to your advantage with exercise


*Resist the temptation to sit down and rest at the end of a stressful day


Use the fuel while you’ve got it. 20- 30 minutes of exercise will clear the head and help you relax. Allowing you to then enjoy downtime with family, friends or whatever you choose.

Of course you need to consider your situation. If you’re run down or have other commitments it may not be possible or wise.


*Set up scenario’s where you create time pressure


Organise to exercise so you’ll finish your workout just before a commitment. That’ll make you move with urgency and purpose. It’s hurrying, but in a good way.

Another option is to set a timer for 30 minutes and see how many strength training exercises and sets you can do.

You can apply the same idea to running or walking, simply try to cover as much distance as possible in a given period. In subsequent sessions try and match or beat that distance.

Using the clock can be a fantastic way of creating a productive workout. There are infinite ways of doing it. A simple but hard one is to see how many burpees you can do in 2 minutes.

For more variety choose 5 exercises and do 10 reps of each of in circuit style. Complete as many rounds as you can in 5 minutes.

Use 3 or 4 such challenges to make a quality, longer workout.


* Exercise during your lunch break


Firstly, if stressed from a mornings work you’re well placed to get into exercise.

Secondly, a lunch break usually has a time limit. You’ll have to get going to make it worthwhile. This’ll create a level of urgency to drive the workout.

It’s not just in lunch breaks or at days end when you can take advantage of time pressure or stress. Give some thought to other times when you’re usually primed but able to squeeze in a workout.


Can you change perspective about your busy schedule?


Time pressure isn’t always the enemy when it comes to sticking with a fitness habit. If time is in short supply it becomes highly valuable and you learn to use it well. This can translate to really effective workouts.


Your busy schedule could just prove to be a mighty ally in your quest to get and stay fit. Perhaps you just need to think about it differently. And be organised and strategic about how and when you go about it.

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