How to stay healthy when you work 60+ hours a week- including the exact workouts and meal plans to use
A while back I asked my readers why it’s so hard to stay in shape. Most of them agreed that they knew they needed to sleep and exercise more, and eat less- but knowing and doing are three different things. When I dug deeper, to uncover the problem behind the problem, three things kept coming up:
• They’re too busy, either because they work more than 60 hours a week, or they work full time and also have kids, or they work while going to school.
• They plan to make healthy decisions, but when the time comes, they’re tired and they just don’t have the willpower to cook, work out, or resist the temptation of junk food.
• In social situations, they feel peer pressure to eat like everyone else.
The following program is designed for people who are extremely busy, stressed out, and don’t have a lot of time to devote to fitness. It is designed to do the following:
• Ensure that you consistently work out, eat the right foods, and get to sleep on time.
• Allow you to stay in good physical condition- or even gradually get into shape if you’re not there already.
• Circumvent issues of willpower and social pressure by scheduling decisions for times when your willpower is high, and nobody is around to
• Allow you to do everything in only 2–3 hours per week.
In this article, I’ll show you exactly how to stay in shape while working long hours, including the exact order in which to tackle the different aspects of health and fitness. I’ve even included specific meal plans and workouts you can use.
1. Make sleep your number one priority
Most people need 7–9 hours of sleep a night- and if they don’t get it, a lot of bad things happen the next day. They feel unhappy, they overeat, they’re unproductive, their sex drive plummets, and their hormonal environment causes the body to start storing fat and breaking down muscle.
Don’t be that person who routinely sacrifices sleep for the sake of their job- it’s short-sighted and self-destructive, and will only lock you into a cycle of under-sleeping, being unproductive, bad health, bad moods, and more under-sleeping. Make sure you get enough sleep every night, and other things start to fall into place.
Start using a smart alarm clock. When you sleep, your body naturally cycles between phases of light and deep sleep. If you’re woken up from the deepest phase of sleep, you’ll feel like crap in the morning, and possibly all day. You want to wake up from the lightest phase of sleep, but with traditional alarm clocks, this is just a matter of luck.
There are two types of smart alarm clock that solve this problem. The first option is smartphone apps like SleepCycle, which use your phone’s accelerometer to sense when you move during sleep, and estimate when you enter light sleep. The second option is a light-based alarm clock such as this one, which uses a gradually brightening light to nudge you towards light sleep before waking you up with pleasant sounds.
Have a pre-bed routine. Figure out what activities relax you, and develop a pre-bed routine to help you transition into sleep. Fiction reading and yoga/stretching tend to work well for most people. Start your pre-bed routine an hour before your scheduled bedtime each night- 8–10 hours before your scheduled wake-up time. Absolutely no working during that last hour before bed.
Cut back on light at night. Your brain uses light- particularly blue light- to set its circadian rhythm, so you want to be exposing your eyes to bright blue light in the mornings, but not in the evenings. Install f.luxx on your devices to make the screens automatically dim and redden in the evenings. Optionally, you can also wear amber-tinted goggles for the last two hours before bed, to block blue wavelengths of light from reaching your eyes.
Alternate sitting and standing throughout the day. Spending more time on your feet is not only a great way to prevent creeping fat gain, but it also fatigues your nervous system, making it easier to get to sleep later that night. You’ll be more alert when you’re on your feet, so stand up when you need to be able to think fast (such as when taking phone calls), and sit down when doing less mentally-demanding tasks.
Meditate once a day. Meditation has been shown to have a wide variety of health benefits- most notably stress reduction. It can be as simple as sitting back, closing your eyes, and focusing on your breathing. Commit yourself to doing that for just two minutes a day. If you want to meditate longer, great- but doing it consistently, every day, is more important than doing it for long periods of time.
Sleep is often viewed as an ancillary concern, secondary to diet and exercise. In my opinion, sleep should be considered on par with diet and exercise, and is maybe even more important- it has the most immediate impact on your subjective sense of well-being, for starters. Building better sleep habits is also one of the best things you can do to be more productive- that alone is enough reason to make it your top priority if you work long hours.
Sleep tends to get treated like an afterthought as people focus on diet and exercise, and I really can’t overstate how important it is. For more detailed advice on sleep, read The complete guide to curing insomnia and Ten changes that helped my onset insomnia.
2. Follow a simple diet with clear rules
No liquid calories. Cut out all liquid calories, including soda, alcohol, juice, and added sugar/cream in your coffee. Also be wary of foods slathered in high-calorie sauces and condiments, such as sweet and sour sauce or mayonnaise.
Drink water all day long. Have a glass of water first thing in the morning, as well as before each meal. Drink water throughout the day, especially if you feel your energy starting to dip. When eating out with friends, drink two glasses of water before ordering your entree. Aim for a gallon a day.
Eat at least 30 grams of protein with every meal. Protein serves a few important functions. First, your body uses it to synthesize muscle tissues- without it, you’ll lose muscle and gain fat. Second, it’s needed to keep your metabolism running at a high rate. And third, it provides satiety, making your meals more filling. Aim for 30 grams a meal, at minimum. Daily, you want to be eating at least .6 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Limit carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates raise your blood sugar more than either fat or protein. When blood sugar goes up, your body produces insulin to bring it back down, and that means two things: fat storage and low energy.
Limit carbohydrate-rich foods to less than a hundred grams per meal- about the size of the palm of your hand. Avoid white or highly processed carbs like bread, cereal, potatoes, and white rice. Favor darker, less-processed carbs and those that contain lots of fiber and protein, like bans, lentils, sweet potatoes, and brown rice.
Fill up on vegetables. Include non-starchy vegetables with every meal. Eat them first, and eat as many as you can. Use them to crowd out the other foods on your menu, so that you limit caloric intake while still getting your vitamins and fiber, and don’t have to go hungry. When eating out with friends, order a vegetable appetizer and eat it before ordering your main course. Start favoring low-calorie fruits and vegetables as snack foods- like carrots, celery, berries, or kale chips.*
Don’t tell my friends I actually recommended kale. I’ll never live it down.
Pre-cook food once or twice a week. Schedule one or two times a week to cook food in bulk. Cook four to ten servings at a time and put the extra food in the fridge so that you always have something healthy on hand and ready to microwave. Make your meals healthier and tastier by incorporating healthy, fat-fighting spices into them.
Choose times when you know you’ll feel motivated to cook- such as a relaxing Sunday evening or right after getting home from work. Do not choose a time when you know you won’t feel like doing it, such as late Saturday night when you just want to have fun. Never schedule health decisions for times when your willpower will be low.
Eat the same few meals over and over. Pick two or three breakfasts and two or three bulk-prep recipes to alternate between. Find a few favorite places to eat near your workplace, pick a few favorite items at those places, and have the same few lunches over and over. Most people prefer to have a little more variety at dinner; you can allow yourself more flexibility with dinner if you’re disciplined for the rest of the day.
Practice intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting has several important benefits. First off, it makes it harder to overeat when you limit the times you’re allowed to eat. Second, fasting lets you time your calories better, so that you do more of your eating post-workout, when those calories will go to your muscles. And third, fasting induces a process known as autophagy, whereby your cells dispose of toxic chemicals and damaged strands of DNA and RNA.
There are two common ways you can practice fasting. First, you can fast for 24 to 36 hours at a time. In other words, if you stop eating on Sunday night, you would break your fast either late Monday night, or Tuesday morning. Long fasts like this should be done anywhere from once a week to once a month- even once a month has been shown to have dramatic health benefits.
Second, you can fast more often for...