How to Stay Fit When You’re an Entrepreneur or Self-Employed

September 13, 2013

When you work for yourself, you set your own schedule. You determine your priorities. You choose what type of work you do and when.

Image: Running to stay in shape

Staying in shape.

You’d think that would mean it’s easier to find time to exercise and stay fit. But too many entrepreneurs wish they were in better shape. They find it difficult to exercise because they’re spending so many hours on their business. They also don’t have someone telling them to be at the office from 9 to 5, which means the workday often turns into 8 to 8 instead… which leaves little room for anything else.

While my habits around working from home have plenty of room for improvement, one thing I’ve done well is keep physically fit. I exercise more consistently now than when I worked a day job, and I use my flexible schedule to my advantage.

If this is something you struggle with, here are a few tips for staying fit when you work for yourself. And even if you’re working for The Man, some of these ideas might help you get back on the exercise train.

1. Prioritize exercise over everything else

Actually, scratch that — because you should put family and relationships first. But right after that comes exercise! You should treat working out like it’s more important than work — because it is. If you’re not healthy, you won’t be able to continue to do all the things you manage now, including work. Heath should be your top priority.

Don’t just say heath is a top priority; act like it. I do this by blocking out time each day to work out. Just like I’d hold a spot for a client phone call, I do not schedule anything during my workout time. No one else is going to set a schedule for you, so you have to set one for yourself.

To accomplish this, block out your exercise schedule at the beginning of every week just like you would your work schedule. Don’t say you’ll fit it into the day somewhere, because you know what will happen: other things will come up that will feel more important, and you’ll do those things instead. Then, when those blocks of times hit…

2. Work out even if you don’t feel like it

This is easier said than done, but if you force yourself to go for a run or hit the gym even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing, it will become a habit. You’ll get used to exercising every day, even when it doesn’t sound like fun.

Watch out, because it’s easy to form the opposite habit, too: If you let yourself off the hook every time you feel a little tired or stressed, you’ll get used to not following through on your promise to yourself.

Remember: when you’re stressed, you probably need that workout more than you realize. As a friend’s dad used to say, “The more you don’t feel like exercising, the more you need to.”

Sometimes, you’ll get out on your bike and end up having a wonderful ride, which can turn a negative day into a positive one. If you get out there and still feel sluggish and tired, go easy on yourself. You don’t want to slack on a regular basis, but if you’re just not feelin’ it, cut your workout from an hour to 30 minutes. The important thing is that you show up consistently. Consider it an investment in yourself.

3. Exercise in the morning before you check email

I fail at this more times than I succeed, but when I do succeed, my workouts are far more meaningful. When I check email before hitting the road on my bike in the morning, all I can think about is how I’ll respond to client emails and which tasks I need to complete when I get back to my home office. I feel stressed about all the things I have to accomplish that day, rather than enjoying the ride.

When I go to the gym before checking email, I feel more free. I enjoy the workout more, and I often come up with great ideas for my work — because my mind isn’t cluttered with all the seemingly urgent tasks that wait in my inbox. That’s when I come up with my best ideas.

4. Count your calories

One of the dangers of working from home is the availability of snacks. They’re right there in the kitchen, so why not have a few more chips? Especially if you don’t leave your office for lunch, it’s easy to snack into the afternoon rather than have a set meal. And when you do that, you might not even realize how many calories you consume.

I was nervous to start counting my calories because I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and I didn’t want to become obsessive about every little thing that goes into my mouth. But it has worked surprisingly well.

Why? Because it’s so straight-forward. So long as you don’t cheat, counting calories is a fail-proof system. You eat only as many as you burn, and you’re good to go.

Second, it has taught me to eat mindfully, rather than snacking at my desk just to help the day pass. I’m now in the habit of thinking about whatever I’m about to put in my mouth. When you only have a certain number of calories to work with each day, you don’t want to waste them on foods you don’t need or truly want.

Lots of apps and gadgets make it easy to count calories. I like My Fitness Pal because it only takes a few minutes to record my daily intake, and there’s a social component. When your friends are in it with you, it holds you accountable.

5. Find a way to move that you actually enjoy

You’re much more likely to exercise consistently if you like the activity. If I had to go to the gym every day and use the elliptical for 45 minutes, I would never do it. I find gym machines so horribly boring that I’ll do everything possible to avoid them.

Image: Yoga handstand

Something I never thought I’d be able to do.

It can be difficult to find an activity we actually enjoy, and it’s not because we don’t like moving — it’s because we are often intimidated to try something new. Joining a running group, for example, is hella scary because you worry you’ll be the slowest person there or won’t have anyone to chat with. Trying a new class at the gym is nerve-wracking, too, because you don’t know what to expect or whether you’ll be able to keep up. Discovering fun ways to exercise often means pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

I was forced to do this over the last few years when I had to give up running, my main form of exercise throughout my 20s, because of a persistent injury. I miss running so much, I could write an entire post about it. But because I had to look for a new way to be active, I discovered yoga, which I now love. I’ve found an instructor who challenges me, and I’m now learning all sorts of headstands and arm balances I never imagined I’d be able to do.

6. Make it social

Working from home can be isolating. Doing group exercise, either by coordinating with a friend or joining a class, is a great way to kill two birds with one stone: you get your sweat on, and you get to talk to someone, too. If you push yourself to try a few new activities, you might even make some new friends.

What works for you? How do you make exercise a priority? Leave your tips in the comments so we can all benefit!


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    22 Replies to “How to Stay Fit When You’re an Entrepreneur or Self-Employed”

    • A combination of five and six for me is knowing what motivates me to get out. Signing up for 5k races with my boyfriend motivates me to run because I have to be in shape to have a chance of countering his stride (the downside to being 10 inches shorter than he is). For my mastermind/accountability group, one of my monthly goals is to get out three times per week. When I know someone will hold me accountable, I can manage to drag myself out. Without the accountability, I’m good at coming up with excuses.

      I incorporate sun salutations to my morning routine, which wakes me up and loosens tight muscles. I use a FitBit to track my steps—always know when I’m having a sluggish day.

      Part of staying fit for me involves my mental health. Being in Minnesota, I struggle with seasonal affective disorder during the winter, so even something as simple as taking vitamin D or using a happy light helps me stay mentally fit. And, frankly, exercise itself is beneficial to mental health. You really do feel better afterward.

    • I find that if I haven’t exercised in a while, I’m just a grumpy guy. But as soon as I spend a few minutes in the gym, and get a chance to do something physical, I just end up being a lot happier. And that feeling lasts for at least a few days.

      Because of that, I’ve gotten used to exercising when I don’t feel like it, and your advice is spot on. I usually go and have a great time, but if I’m not really enjoying it, I don’t push it and just cut the time short. That way I can say that I went, get some of the benefits of being active, but I’m not hating every minute of it. And that keeps me going back.

      Great advice.

    • Is that you doing the headstand?? How cool!! My favorite tip is #3! It’s best to get exercise “out of the way” before other things get in the way during the day!

    • BetsyM says:

      Love that you wrote about this! As someone who works both full-time and does quite a bit of work on the side, prioritizing my fitness and health can be tough. But I have made a lot of progress over the past several months and am feeling much better. Tips I try to follow:

      – Attend regular group exercise classes and make them part of my schedule: This holds me accountable. My Friday and Saturday classes are taught by the same instructor. When she says “see you tomorrow?” on Friday, I feel guilty if I don’t show!
      – Track what I eat: About a month ago, I started using the MyFitnessPas app and started logging everything I was eating. I resisted doing this for a long time. I thought it was mechanical and unnatural and would make me not enjoy food as much. But like calorie counting for you, it really has helped “” especially with my snacking problem!
      – “Check into” my workouts: There’s this other app called GymPact that I’ve been using. You make a pact to pay out money if you miss a workout, but if you hit all your workouts, you get paid out from people who missed theirs. I found it’s not really motivation to make money, but to avoid LOSING money. After “making” $2-3 a week for almost a year, I’m so close to a pair of Lululemon yoga pants!
      – Eat veggie whenever possible: As a carnivore for life, I’m always struggling to squeeze more vegetables into my diet. So I have been cooking more vegetarian meals. Though I’m not planning on giving up bacon or steak, cutting back has carved out room for more good-for-me foods.

    • Amy Chick says:

      This is great advice and so, so important. Consider me Exhibit A: I am currently nursing an ACL injury because I didn’t make fitness a priority this year – my first year working for myself. My body became weak and unable to hold itself together properly, so I injured myself when I was hiking in Colorado. It can be too easy to allow work to keep you from staying active. Learn from my mistakes, people!

      Also, you’re so right about exercising first. The best intentions mean nothing once those emails start coming in! Great post 🙂

    • Brian says:

      Funny, I just congratulated myself this morning for getting back into working out and I come across this post. I like to split my morning workout between yoga and meditation (roughly half an hour for each). Throughout my day I get up every hour and half for jumping jack, stretches, squats, pushups, and a few other resistance work outs.

      At night I set aside an hour to for resistance and light yoga.

      On the days I actually do stick to this, I feel great and I’m ready to conquer the world. On days that I don’t, I feel….blah.

      Thanks for the reminder to keep myself in shape.

    • Russell Kith says:

      Routine is the key to my success, without routine I find it too easy to slip up and miss workouts even plan my meals for the week.

      • Jim says:

        This is what I was going to say too, I like to break up my afternoons with something active. Sometimes it’s just a walk around the neighborhood, sometimes it’s a run, but it’s something that gets me going.

        I also find that I can use that time to *think* — which is easier to do when you’re being active (vs. sitting in front of the computer).

    • I was a dancer my whole life, and honestly, I feel like I should be a professional dancer right now, but an injury changed my life. Six years later, I still haven\’t found anything I enjoy as much, so I just have solo dance parties in my apartment. It may not be the best exercise, but it gets my heart rate going!

    • Lisa says:

      I’m starting to get back in the exercise routine with a goal of going to yoga once each week, along with bikesharing to and from Metro for my (new) commute so long as a bike’s available and it’s not pouring. Even though I’m only on bikeshare for about 10 minutes at a time, it’s 10 minutes that I’d otherwise be spending standing at the bus stop!

      I’ve been feeling some major guilt (and some awfully tight jeans) over my crap eating and lack of exercise. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles to fit this important routine into the self-employed lifestyle!

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