Editor’s Note: This post was updated on November 8, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on May 17, 2017.
The average U.S. adult works 47 hours a week, with around 40% saying they put in 50+ hours. This adds up to an average of a month extra work each year compared to our European counterparts!
We get it: you’re ambitious, determined … perhaps even a bit entrepreneurial.
You are the first to arrive at work and the last to leave. After a long stressful day at work, you have to worry about family and personal commitments… the last thing you are thinking about exercise. If you work a desk job and commute, it’s easy to fall into a sedentary lifestyle.
Don’t worry, we’ve come up with some actionable strategies for time-crunched workaholics who want to improve their body composition (specifically, build lean body mass and lose fat).
If you’re strapped for time and want to build a leaner, stronger physique, then this article is for you.
Read on for the 3 effective strategies and action steps you can take in accordance with each.
Strategy #1: Start in the Kitchen
Ok, we know you’ve heard it before but it bears repeating:
Unless you’re in the small minority of people who are incredibly disciplined/mindful/educated about food when you eat out, eating out often puts you in a perilous spot if you’re trying to improve your body composition.
People who work long hours tend to order takeout or dine out a lot because, at the end of a long day, they don’t feel like they have much time, interest, and/or energy left to cook food.
The numbers back this up: Millennials spend 44% of their food dollars on meals out of the house, according to the USDA’s latest food expenditure data. Even baby boomers spend close to 40 percent of their food dollars on eating out.
What’s the problem with this, you ask?
Eating out is one of the biggest reasons people become overweight.
It’s hard to track the amount of calories and nutrients you’re getting from your food when most restaurants either a) don’t know the nutrition facts information for their dishes, or b) make it hard for you to find them. When you eat out, you tend to consume excess empty calories and thus increase the chances of storing fat.
That’s why preparing your own food is so important. It gives you direct control over what you eat, and allows you to test different dietary approaches to see which one works best for improving your body composition (and gut health as an added benefit). Even if you don’t enjoy cooking food, try following these steps for a few weeks and see how your body responds.
- Find out your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR (aka, the minimum amount of calories you need in a day for basic bodily functions). This will help you figure out how many calories you need in order to optimize your diet to meet your goal, whether its muscle gain or fat loss,
- Don’t have the energy to prepare food for your diet every day? Pick one day of the week to prepare an array of whole, nutrient-dense foods to eat for the week. Here are some food prep ideas for both omnivores and vegetarians/vegans:
- Get a salad spinner and rinse/spin a bunch of greens for the week.
- Roast root vegetables like beets, carrots, onions, and parsnips (a little olive oil and salt is all you need).
- Prepare a big batch of oatmeal, quinoa, rice, or other whole grain you enjoy eating. Experiment with other whole grains you haven’t tried before.
- Grill a bunch of lean chicken, fish, or tofu so you have an abundance of lean protein on hand.
- Buy raw nuts and seeds and roast them with sea salt for a healthy snack.
- Keep a food diary and track everything you eat. It may sound tedious and annoying but it’s effective: keeping a food journal can double weight loss, according to research. There are plenty of apps and websites that let you easily track what you’re eating in 5-10 minutes/day. If you want to take a more data-driven approach to understand your body composition, then keeping track of your diet is an important piece of the equation most people neglect.
Strategy # 2. Strength Training + HIIT = Build Muscle, Burn Fat
After a busy workday, you want to be as efficient as you can with the time left in the day. If you want to improve your lean body mass and achieve a toned, healthy look in the least amount of time possible, resistance training and high intensity interval training (HIIT) are your best bets.
Let’s unpack the science behind each.
Resistance training has as many stigmas attached to it as well as benefits. First, let’s look at the benefits. Resistance training, which means that you are strength training using any form of resistance, can help you:
- Increase lean body mass
- Make your bones, joints, and skeletal muscles stronger and reduce pain
- Reduce anxiety
- Improve your body image
- Help you burn more calories at rest
There are a plenty of myths surrounding resistance training and strength training in general that may make some hesitate to incorporate it into their fitness routine. Here are two of the biggest:
- Myth 1: Resistance training will automatically make you gain weight. It’s true that resistance training or any strength training may make losing weight more difficult–but that’s because resistance training helps you burn fat and build lean body mass. This means your weight may stay the same but you will “look” leaner.
- Myth 2: Resistance training isn’t as effective as hardcore cardio. If you like to run, bike or swim, more power to you … those are all great workouts. Plus, aerobic exercise can help reduce cardiovascular risk and body fat. However, we lose muscle mass every year after age 35. This increases our risk for sarcopenia, which is a decrease in muscle mass associated with aging. Studies show that resistance training is beneficial for preventing and even reversing sarcopenia in older adults and can be an effective long-term strategy to prevent weight gain and unwanted changes in body composition. Although cardio exercise may be effective in fat loss, it does not help as much to increase muscle mass– and sometimes may result in decreases in muscle mass. And let’s face it: most of us don’t just exercise because it’s good for our heart—we do it because it also helps us look and feel better about ourselves. If you’re seeking a more athletic, toned look, then plain old cardio isn’t going to cut it.
Resistance training can seem daunting at first, but doing more bench presses at the gym and even adding dumbbell exercises at home can help you build the muscle.
High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, is a type of workout that includes quick, intense bursts of exercise, followed by short (sometimes active) recovery periods.
If your main goal is to lose body fat in the least amount of time and you’re not as concerned about muscle gain, HIIT is a proven approach.
One caveat here: if you’re sedentary, HIIT may actually not be any more efficient than traditional steady-state cardio (i.e., running on the treadmill) for losing weight quickly. But HIIT is still one of the best types of workouts for burning fat and improving your body composition.
- Schedule at least two resistance training( or any type of strength training) and/or HIIT workouts every week (this is the minimum amount the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend). Try a 15 minute HIIT wo
- Track how your body is changing. The more you incorporate strength training and HIIT workouts into your schedule, the more you’ll see your body improve. The third and final strategy will show you how.
- Get up and move! If you have a sedentary desk job, it’s important to take a break and move around. It doesn’t have to be as intense as a cardio workout, but any movement – even leisurely movement, can be impactful. The key is to break up long periods of sitting.
Strategy 3: Track Your Progress, Get Results
Tracking your progress is one of the most overlooked things you can do to encourage a long-term commitment to eating well and exercising. Especially with the hours and hours you’re spending at your desk or running around making calls, the last thing on your mind while trying to eat healthy and exercise is to calculate how your body is changing.
Like we mentioned, keeping a food journal is a good way to track what you’re eating over time and make notes of how different foods affect your body. Likewise, it’s a good idea to schedule your workouts in advance and record your exercise routines in a journal.
But aside from the physical exam and labs from your physician, how can you track improvements to your physical health beyond weight loss or BMI (especially when your goal is muscle gain)?
Body Composition Analysis
Tracking body composition progress gives you objective feedback on metrics that you are about: lean body mass gain and fat loss. And it’s easy! Body composition analysis tests can be done under a minute and are vital in showing you what’s working and what’s not. You’ll be able to directly make data-driven adjustments and tweaks that can help you achieve your goal. You don’t have time to waste as a busy individual. Periodic Body composition tests can make sure that you are on track to meeting your fitness goals.
- Start small. Research shows small commitments can help prevent weight gain and lead to sustainable behavior changes that become lifelong habits. For example, commit to 20 minutes of exercise per day. Pack fruit with you for breakfast or lunch. Do 5 pushups every day. Take a 30-minute walk. All of these “tiny habits”, as Dr. Fogg, a Stanford psychologist, calls them, can add up to big rewards.
- Track your progress. If you don’t have a daily planner, get one. Or use Evernote, Google Calendar/Docs/Sheets, Apple Notes, Momentum, etc. The key is, record what you’re doing. Find a local gym that offers body composition analysis services. Keep your numbers, set a new goal, and get your numbers checked every 1-3 months. For food tracking, try free services like MyPlate or MyFitnessPal.
The “best” approach for you, the busy professional, is the one that 1) helps you strike the right personal balance between work, health, and play, and 2) aligns with your personal body composition goal.
If your goal is to build lean body mass while keeping a low body fat percentage, resistance training is a proven method. What you eat and how much you eat obviously are big factors too. For example, research shows eating about 15% more calories per day than what is required to maintain your body weight is optimal for increasing lean body mass.
If you’re trying to burn more fat and get a toned, lean look in the least amount of time, HIIT is a great option.
Regardless of which type of exercise fits into your busy life, eat right, exercise, and track your progress, including your body composition numbers! The next generation of successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, and big thinkers are already using this highly strategic, data-driven approach. If you haven’t jumped on the body composition bandwagon, maybe it’s time to start.
Don’t give in to a sedentary lifestyle! Even with the loads of work you have on your plate, small, incremental changes to your diet and exercise can do wonders to your health.
Scott Christ is a health and wellness entrepreneur, writer, and website strategy consultant. He’s also the creator of the world’s healthiest plant-based protein powder.