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5 Work-From-Home Fitness Hacks That Maximize Minimum Time

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the workplace. Many were forced to work from home, and self-motivate to get the job done. The same can be said for fitness; with gyms off-limits, indoor exercise, particularly strength training, moved to garages and living rooms. Work-from-home exercise became a reality.
Ruck pack, kettlebells, notebook computer(Photo/Seiji Ishii)
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Many still work from home but have moved their fitness routines back to the gym. Yes, the social aspect is nice, and the accountability to workout buddies or trainers contributes to compliance. This separation of work from fitness does have its place. But as a professional trainer, single father, and full-time Work From Home (WFH) editor, I feel like we are leaving so much opportunity on the table to improve our fitness.

The WFH environment allows “hacks” unavailable to location-bound professionals unless you work in a gym. I’m not suggesting you eschew your job responsibilities; I’m saying that there are entirely legitimate fitness hacks that can be taken during screen breaks, lunches, and other situations that would be appropriate at the office.

So, here are the top five work-from-home exercise and fitness hacks I employ while surfing the keys for GearJunkie.

Work In a Set or Two During 5-Minute Breaks

Best Kettlebell Review and Guide from a CrossFit Expert
Kettlebells take up little space and are affordable, especially on the used market; (photo/Billy Brown)

How long does a typical strength training exercise take? Very little time. A typical set may involve anywhere from one to 20 repetitions. Even at 20 reps, going slow, a set will take less than a minute. This means that in a 5-minute screen break, you can work in two sets without even rushing. Of course, this means you must have the resistance-providing weight or device in your home.

Barbells and racks are way too big for most people to house within their residence or home office (I’ve done it, but I’m single and couldn’t care less about home decor). And they can be a significant investment. However, kettlebells (KB) and dumbbells (DB) are compact and affordable, especially in the used market.

If you have tile or wood flooring, 3′ x 4′ or 4′ x 6′ rubber stall mats are available at retailers like Tractor Supply. They are typically 1/2″ or 3/4″ thick and will protect even tile floors from dropping a 54-pound kettlebell from shoulder height (I’ve done it a lot).

Time Management via the Pomodoro Technique

I like to use the “Pomodoro Technique” to manage my work-from-home exercise breaks. It’s something I learned to counteract my ADHD, and it’s worked wonders for productivity. But I also feel it’s an ideal structure for this fitness hack.

It involves taking a 5-minute break every 25 minutes, making two breaks per hour. This is repeated four times, which brings me to my lunch break. Then, I repeat the whole shebang after lunch. I use an internet-based Pomodoro timer, but any timer will do.

As soon as the timer goes off for my 5-minute break, I jump right into one set of KB work, which involves quick, powerful movements that require managing momentum, balance, and other athletically beneficial aspects. KB exercises generally call for lower weights and higher reps per set than other strength development work.

Then I do one straight-up, low-rep, high-load, raw strength set using DBs, KBs, or a Tonal (yes, I’m so fortunate to have one). This usually only takes a part of the break, leaving me some time to do a mobility drill or grab a drink or snack to take to my desk. After lunch, I change the exercises.

Work From Home Exercise: A Full Workout Done on Breaks

If you do the math and stick to the work-from-home exercise schedule and two-set count, the workday will yield 16 sets! Think about a 1-hour strength training session at the gym; 16 total sets would be a solid workout of four exercises for four sets each.

But you can get it done during the work day, and for me, it keeps me alert and my basal metabolic rate above idle. Both absolutely contribute to productivity. Add in some strategically timed coffee, and you might feel like an Olympian … that types all day.

Wear a Weight Vest or Ruck Pack

Women rucking together
Rucking is gaining popularity, and you can do it while working; (photo/GORUCK)

This seems like a nerdy or odd thing to do, but who cares? You’re at home with nobody to judge you. Maybe you have family or a significant other, and you know what? They can stuff it. Put that weight vest or ruck pack on whenever you are standing or walking during your work day!

Everyone has likely heard some version of the “10,000 Step” rule. A quick PubMed perusal on “daily step count” will spit out reams of studies that point toward higher step counts combating devious-sounding things like all-cause-mortality, bone density loss, sarcopenia (muscle wasting), dysglycemia (blood sugar abnormalities), etc.

Well, adding load to these steps ups the ante, enhancing and adding to the benefits of walking. Even just standing while working with added load increases postural muscle activation and signals to bones to maintain density.

Cumulative Steps and Time Under Load

I use a step counter, and on a typical day of my work-from-home exercise schedule, I will amass a few thousand steps without any drastic measures. A typical “spirited” walking rate for a young to middle-aged adult is 100 steps per minute.

Again, using math, you can see that adding 10 minutes of walking in a workday (during the cumulative extra time in the 5-minute break or lunch) can add 1,000 steps. This, by itself, can improve health, but with the additional load of a weight vest or ruck pack, you can double up on the benefits.

When I have a work phone call, I know I will possibly chalk up thousands of steps while I chat away on the job. I do my best to schedule these calls back-to-back so I can stay rucking for longer. I will also bolt up and down my driveway when I have leftover time in a 5-minute break. Between rucking while in my house, the extra minute or two outside during my 5-minute breaks, and phone calls, my time under load is substantial.

I know there is a wide variance in the amount people stand and walk during the workday and the speed at which they walk. And not everyone will tolerate always “being on it.” And I understand I’m a fitness dork through and through.

But I stack the marginal gains: when I do walk, I walk fast. I use a standing desk. If I have an extra minute on a break, I use it. In my mind, marginal gains stack over time to make significant gains. I rarely fail at accumulating 5,000+ steps in a workday with a load on my back. That counts for something.

I have not worn my ruck pack to the grocery store, but I sure am thinking about it. I will engineer a way to get 10,000 steps with a load on a “normal” day.

Work on Mobility When Possible

Man in gym stretching
This guy could be typing. For real; (photo/Miya Tsudome)

Mobility is likely the most overlooked aspect of fitness. I get it; it’s boring, you aren’t moving that much, maybe you don’t think it feels good. But the older I’ve become, the more it has affected my day-to-day activities and athletic performance.

Little niggling pains developed over decades of repetitive motion and positions in sports like climbing and cycling. Being a keyboard warrior certainly doesn’t help. A few months of dedicated mobility work, done in small increments, dissolved all issues.

But how do you weave this into desk-bound work? The laptop computer has been the key for me. These tips might elicit an eye-rolling “I’m not going to do that” response. But believe me, they will help open up joints and may alleviate muscle tension you’ve been suffering for years.

Examples of Mobility at the Keys

I must get creative, but here are some of my notebook computer-based mobility hacks. The first one is I sit cross-legged on the floor with the computer in my lap. Not everyone has muscle and connective tissue length issues that make this challenging, but many cannot sit this way without strain.

I will sit like this for a few minutes. When I stand up, my hips are so much looser. Over the years, I’ve gone from being unable to sit this way without back tightness to being able to read comfortably for up to half an hour.

I’ll do the same but with my legs together, straight out in front of me, or with my legs split. I put the laptop on my shins or the floor, reach forward from my hip joints, or split my legs as far as they go with a neutral spine. I’ll also do rounded-back versions.

I’ve also sat in various positions or stood with different leg orientations, computer off to a side, to rotate the length of my spine while reading a web page for research. You don’t have to force yourself to hold positions for a minute or more; even doing a passive stretch for 20 seconds will help.

Use your imagination! And, you might as well do mobility when it doesn’t take time away from more enjoyable exercise. I extrapolated and made this a hard rule: If the TV is on, I’m doing mobility.

Hot Lunch

Woman in an infrared sauna for work from home exercise article
Infrared saunas heat the body directly with light. Traditional saunas heat the air, which then heats the body. Infrared saunas are more affordable and can have minimal footprints; (photo/Dmitri T via Shutterstock)

I have been aware of the benefits of sauna bathing for decades; it’s hard to refute the numerous studies advocating its health, wellness, and longevity benefits. Infrared or far-infrared saunas brought the price and space commitment of a home sauna way down, and the spike in sales volume during the pandemic lockdowns further lowered the financial point of entry.

Used Infrared Saunas

I’ve been keeping an eye on used infrared saunas for a long time. And now, a few short years after the COVID-19 lockdowns, the used market started hopping. I picked up a massive, five-person outdoor infrared sauna for a few hundred dollars. It was beaten, but the critical components worked fine.

A little wood repair work, sanding, and staining will make it look resort-ready. The most considerable cost was wiring a 220V outlet, which many saunas require. I have about $1,000 in it, but it could be much less if I had bought a single or two-person unit.

And before you say, “Well, infrared saunas won’t provide the same health benefits as a regular sauna,” pump the brakes. Infrared units don’t have the volume of studies as dry or wet saunas because they haven’t been popular as long. But that’s changing with the increased use of these more affordable options.

I’ve been spending at least 25 minutes of my lunch break in the infrared and far-infrared sauna (mine has both). I leave enough time to cool down and dry off before tapping the keys again. I eat before going in as it has negatively affected my appetite (some of my friends eat in there, no problem), and I’m not trying to limit calories anymore — read on for why.

My Weight Loss Experience

When I raced bicycles competitively, I weighed 164 pounds. I rode a minimum of 12 hours per week, and on high weeks, I would sometimes ride over 30 hours. But, alas, I was young and free.

Now in my mid-fifties, my training hours on a bicycle are often single digits each week, and I do things that require much more muscle mass. For decades, I’ve hovered around 174 pounds. Over the last 5 years, I’ve done everything I could to get under 170 pounds to improve my climbing and cycling performance. I consulted with doctors, nutritionists, and cycling WorldTour team coaches. Relenting to what I thought was age, I gave up.

But I got the sauna and, as stated, started spending at least 25 minutes in it during my lunch break. About a month in, I noticed I needed a belt more often than not. I stepped on the scale; I was 159 pounds! Less than my bicycle racing weight!

My sudden increase in bouldering ability instantly made sense. All other factors were held constant. I started eating more because I felt that being under 160 pounds was too light and may lessen my durability.

I recently went on a 2-week travel stint, and guess what? The weight came back. I’ve been home again for 2 weeks, back in the sauna, and my weight is steadily heading back down. That is a low-effort wellness gain if there ever was one!

Commit a Little Time

Blocked out paper schedule for work from home exercise
You most likely have work-related scheduling blocks that are off-limits to other things. Why not give yourself the same respect? (photo/OlgaPS via Shutterstock)

This isn’t really a work-from-home exercise “hack.” It’s a lifestyle alteration that I consider essential for opening up time for self-care, which can include fitness. And arguably, it’s the hardest thing to do on this list.

It’s simply blocking off time that you commit to exercise, full stop. Nothing can encroach on this time. Not work, not the phone, not even family or friends (if you tell them, they will support you). You must fully commit; when this time comes up, you cannot deviate or skate out for any reason.

It doesn’t have to be an hour, and in fact, I feel like that is too big an ask and reduces the compliance rate — I voted for 30 minutes. I changed my wakeup time to 30 minutes earlier. I get up, start the coffee, and get right to it; I avoid getting sidetracked right out of the gate.

It can be a short weight-training session, rucking with my dog, a hangboard session, or a dedicated stretching or mobility session. The point is, it’s my time, and it’s non-negotiable. And, c’mon, it’s only 30 minutes, so it’s not a gargantuan ask.

My Personal Experience

For some reason, this was very difficult for me. I would get easily distracted when lifting, doing mobility, or hangboarding. I’d do one set, and then pick up my phone and message people back. Or I’d start reading something, and 10 minutes would fly by. I would make another coffee, nibble on a snack, pet my dog or cat, and lose time.

If you only have 30 minutes, blowing five of them while playing with your dog is substantial. But it became a habit once I fully committed to the undistracted 30 minutes for 2 weeks. Of course, this isn’t ever an issue if I’m rucking.

It’s 30 minutes, which I didn’t have before. I do it 6 days a week for a super substantial three-hour gain of training time per week.

Think about it. Look at your week on a calendar and try to engineer adding 3 hours of training time. I’ll hold your computer mouse. Yes, it’s difficult for anyone with a full-time job and other life commitments. But chipping away at it with a few 30- or even 15-minute blocks adds up. I consider this more than a marginal gain but less than a disrupting ask.

Remember, this has to be a hard stop. Nothing can interfere. Do it for you.

Work-From-Home Exercise Final Thoughts

Seiji Ishii using a Tonal as work from home exercise
The author busting out a set during a 5-minute break from work; (photo/Seiji Ishii)

None of these work-from-home exercise and wellness “hacks” require a large investment in time or massive changes to daily routines. They are small changes or additions to your work-from-home schedule that can pay off big in total.

I understand how some may think, “That little thing isn’t going to amount to much.” But here’s the deal. Putting up a point is always better than putting up a zero. Don’t put up a zero.

And yes, I realize we are all human, and things happen. I am not militant, nor do I suggest you be. I don’t do all these hacks all the time. Some days. I don’t do any of them. Again, I allow myself some grace and remind myself that something is better than nothing. I try hard not to put up a zero on most days.

Change Your Mind

When I was younger and a competitive athlete armed with a kinesiology degree, I didn’t exercise unless it was a minimum workload. I didn’t think it was worth the effort if I didn’t have 2 hours to cycle. I shelved a planned strength session if I couldn’t lift for at least an hour. My education and experience suggested that recovery was more beneficial than a “partial” workout.

But that was a different time, and I had a different lifestyle. That way of thinking, which many former athletes may still have, leaves opportunities out for those with busy lives and limited time. A lifestyle that includes a full-time, sedentary job has a lot of built-in recovery time, 5 days a week!

Embrace your reality and leverage the time you have, no matter how insubstantial it may seem. Work-from-home exercise is a legitimate vehicle for improving fitness and health. A point is better than a zero, and a gain is a gain, no matter how small. Now get after it, fellow keyboard jockeys!

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