The first step for doing anything is just showing up. And when it comes to exercise, there’s a lot that can get in the way. Classes, studying, eating dinner, socializing—juggling it all requires time-management skills. And if you’re someone who’s hitting the snooze button 10 minutes before lecture, cramming for exams, or ordering calzones at 11 p.m., it might be hard to imagine how to fold fitness into your daily routine.
You wouldn’t be the only one. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that students’ physical activity levels decreased during the transition from high school to college years. Considering that research also shows that active students are healthier and happier than their inactive classmates, it’s probably worth your while to figure out how to work more movement into your day.
We talked to yoga guru and wellness expert Rebecca Pacheco for advice. She’s the author of Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life and the upcoming Still Life: The Myths and Magic of a Mindful Life (Harper Wave). She specializes in helping everyday people—not just fitness buffs—blend movement into their lives in ways that are sustainable and even fun.
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1. Schedule exercise on your calendar
One of the best ways to fit exercise into your schedule is … to schedule it in. “Get something on your calendar Sunday night for the upcoming week,” says Pacheco. Check for fitness classes on campus (some colleges offer classes that can be taken for credit!), and keep an eye on the weather if you plan to do something outdoors. “Remove the obstacles in advance so that you have the best chance for success,” Pacheco says. But be realistic: If you’re not a morning person, don’t pencil in a 6 a.m. walk or yoga class. Figure out which times of day feel best, and when it will actually be doable.
2. Break it up (and work those study breaks)
Exercise isn’t an all-or-nothing deal. Studies show you can get the same benefit from, say, four 10-minute bursts as you would from a single 40-minute session. So break it up. Instead of reflexively grabbing a cup of caffeine or a candy bar for energy while you’re studying, hop up from your desk and take a 5-minute movement break. (Set a timer to stay honest.) “Keep resistance bands in your room—they’re cheap and portable—and a great way to work out muscles in the lower body. Air squats, push-ups, tricep dips on your chair, dancing to Lizzo (with headphones so you don’t disturb your roommate) are all great options,” Pacheco says. Bonus: You don’t need to leave your room.
3. Buddy up
Working out with a friend (or friends) can double your chances of getting fit. No joke. Studies show that buddying up is one of the most important predictors of long-term fitness, because there’s someone holding you accountable. (It’s harder to bail on a running partner who’s counting on you to show up than if you were going for a solo jog.) It’s also an easy way to boost your spirits while you boost your heart rate, Pacheco says. You’ll have a built-in catch-up session—and time flies when you’re having fun. (As opposed to those days you feel like you’ve been on the treadmill forever, only to discover it’s been 5 minutes.)
4. Think about how good you feel
When you work out, you’ll likely have more energy and sleep better. Plus, exercise is one of the best stress relievers, no matter which type you do: cardio, strength training, yoga—it doesn’t matter.
If you’re working out to lose weight or look more toned, those reasons are completely legitimate. But remember: “That’s not going to sustain you in the long term,” says Pacheco. Rather than setting a goal in pounds, think in terms of how you want exercise to make you feel, whether that’s calmer or more relaxed or focused.
5. Skip the Uber
Commute on foot (or bike) as much as you can, whether it’s to class or a party. “You’ll add more movement to your day and help save the environment,” Pacheco says. And mixing it up will mean you’re less likely to get bored. Sticking to a routine is great, especially to start, but doing the same workout routine at the same time all the time can start to feel a little stale for some people.
6. Record your progress
Track your effort by posting social media photos of your workout routine, if that motivates you (and doesn’t leave you hungry for likes). “If you genuinely feel great and are proud of yourself, it’s worth sharing,” Pacheco says. If you prefer privacy, use a Fitbit. Or go old-fashioned and write in a journal. The most important thing, says Pacheco, is to maintain a diary of your progress and the emotion it generates, so you can refer to it when life gets busy, or you forget. “What sustains people—and the best, most rewarding approach—is when you recognize how good exercise makes you feel,” she says. “When we take time to acknowledge it, it builds upon itself.”
7. Be realistic (but have fun!)
“It’s important to acknowledge that things can be difficult and enjoyable,” Pacheco says. “For instance, running for sure isn’t enjoyable at first; in fact, it can be pretty hard. It’s important to keep in mind that just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you haven’t done something important and empowering,” she says.
“Hang your hat on that small achievement and trust that it’s going to get easier.” Pacheco suggests setting small check-ins maybe every week or two to see how much easier it’s gotten.
8. Congratulate yourself
Especially if you don’t consider yourself a fitness person, remember, baby steps count big-time. “Something is better than nothing,” Pacheco says. “So be kind to yourself if you did something for your health—anything! Be proud that you drank a lot of water or simply walked around the block.”