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 shorter periods of about 16 hours at a time. If you choose this style of fasting, you would stop eating around 8 PM, and break your fast at noon the next day. This should be done at least twice a week if you choose this option, and can be done every day if desired. For busy people, this offers the additional benefit of allowing you to save time by skipping breakfast.
Sample Meal Plan
Each of the following example meals come out to about 30 grams of protein and 400–600 calories. The home-cooked meals each take about 5–20 minutes to make (the pot roast has to cook all day but takes about ten minutes of actual work).
Option 1: 2 eggs scrambled in half a tablespoon of organic butter, 2 pan-fried chicken sausages, a handful of mixed nuts, carrots and celery sticks.
Option 2: Omelet with 3 eggs, 2 slices of chopped ham, mushrooms, peppers and tomato. Made with a tablespoon of organic butter.
Option 3: One packet of pre-cooked lentils, one handful of mixed nuts, and 2 cups of mixed vegetables stir-fried in coconut oil. (vegan)
Lunch options for eating out
Subway chopped salad: Basically a sub without the bread. Get meat, cheese and all the veggies you want, but no more than one fatty additive such as oil, ranch or avocado.
Chipotle salad: Get beans but no rice, and only one added fat- either avocado, cheese or sour cream.
McDonalds and most other fast food places: The salads are fine but they give you way too much dressing. Use half the dressing at most. Skip the croutons too.
Restaurants: You can’t go wrong with steak or salmon and roasted vegetables. Thai places are great- get a stir-fry or curry and skip the rice. Mexican can be good too if you get a burrito with no carbs beyond the tortilla, or a plate of meat and beans with vegetables. Any place that offers low-carb wraps is good too.
Meat and vegetable stir-fry: One pound of meat and one pound of mixed vegetables, stir-fried in butter or coconut oil. Makes four servings.
Pot roast: Put two pounds of vegetables and two pounds of meat into a slow-cooker. Optionally, add a few sweet potatoes or a can of beans. Makes about eight servings.
Meat and vegetable soup: Chop up a pound of meat and boil it in a pre-made broth (either pre-packaged or made earlier). Once it’s boiled, turn down to a simmer and add a pound of vegetables. Optionally, add two sweet potatoes or a can of beans. Makes about four servings.
Flexible dinner options
If you want to have a nice dinner rather than just eating your pre-cooked food, and you’re being disciplined for breakfast and lunch, you can allow yourself more flexibility on carbs and portion sizing. Things like sushi and pasta are alright for dinner once or twice a week, as is a glass of wine. Just remember to start with water and vegetables, don’t eat past the point of feeling full, don’t get drunk, and don’t eat anything that you know is junk food.
3. Follow a time-saving workout plan
You need exercise, but it’s often the first thing to go when you get busy. There are two things you need to do to make your workouts fit your schedule. First, make them short, intense, and infrequent. Generally, that means full-body workouts. And second, schedule them for times when they’ll be easy to do.
Option 1: Work out at a gym
This is what I would consider the ideal choice, as a gym gives you a distraction-free environment and access to heavy weights that allow you to optimally stress your muscles. These workouts take about 30–45 minutes, and should be done 2–3 times a week.
Deadlifts: 3 sets of 6
Military press: 4 sets of 5
20–30 minutes of steady-state cardio or 10–15 minutes of interval sprints.
Bench press: 4 sets of 5–6
Chin-ups: 3 sets to fatigue, or 3 sets of 5–6 weighted chin-ups
20–30 minutes of steady-state cardio or 10–15 minutes of interval sprints.
Squats: 3 sets of 8
Barbell bent over row: 4 sets of 6–8
20–30 minutes of steady-state cardio or 10–15 minutes of interval sprints.
Keep your rest periods under two minutes. Warm up before the workout if necessary, and stretch after.
As you build more stamina, you might want to add volume, or make your workouts more intense. You can do both by replacing the cardio portion of your workout with a short, super-intense hurricane sprint workout.
Option 2: Home workouts
If you can’t make it to a gym (or don’t want to), you can work out at home. These workouts are performed circuit-style, and require one piece of equipment: an adjustable-weight dumbbell.
They won’t build much muscle, if any (the weights aren’t heavy enough) but they will produce a metabolic effect that burns fat and keeps your cardiovascular system healthy. These workouts take about 20 minutes each, and should be performed 3–4 times a week.
Dumbbell swings, 15 each arm
Pushups with 2 second hold at the bottom, 12 reps
Dumbbell lunge hold (stay in a deep lunge, holding your dumbbell on the same side as your rear leg) 10 seconds each side
Plank, 30 seconds
Mountain climbers, 20 reps
Pistol squats, 10 reps each leg
Dumbbell behind-neck press, 8 reps each arm
Side plank, 20 seconds each side
Jump squats, 20 reps
Plyometric push-ups, 10 reps
With each workout, repeat the circuit 5 times. Move immediately from one exercise to the next, and rest 1–2 minutes between circuits. As it gets easier, start adding weight, adding reps, going deeper with each rep, and/or shortening the rest periods.
If you want to build more muscle, you could instead use heavier weights, with longer rests and either more total sets per workout or more frequent workouts. That’ll take longer though.
Alternatively, if you want a cheaper equipment option that can be taken with you when you travel, use resistance bands combined with bodyweight exercises– read my resistance band training guide to see how this works.
When to work out
There are two rules around workout timing. First, work out on an empty or mostly empty stomach. Second, schedule your workouts for times when your physical and mental energy will be high, and people won’t be distracting you. Again, never plan to make fitness decisions when you know your energy and willpower will be low.
This gives you three good options on weekdays: 1) first thing in the morning, before eating breakfast or checking email. 2) Immediately after getting off work, before eating dinner or kicking back and starting to relax at home. 3) If time allows, on your lunch break before eating lunch.
Personally, I prefer working out later in the day, as I think that’s ideal from a biological standpoint. I also like very short bodyweight circuits first thing in the morning to boost the metabolism and set my circadian rhythm. Ultimately though, what’s more important is what fits your schedule.
Note the caveats there- in the mornings, you’ll be in work mode, and distracted, as soon as you check emails- so work out first. In the evenings, once you sit on your couch and start watching TV, you’re not going to want to reverse course and hit the gym. Do your workouts before distraction and fatigue set in.
Weekends are a lot more individual, and usually offer you a lot more time in which to work out. I can’t give you specific times, but remember to have realistic expectations about how early you’ll be waking up on the weekends, and don’t schedule workouts so they butt up against social activities.
What about supplements?
Supplements will account for less than 5% of your results. You can do without them, and their importance pales in comparison to diet, exercise and sleep. That said, there are a few that might help. All of the following are totally optional, but somewhat useful.
Vitamin D Almost everyone is mildly deficient in vitamin D. Your skin makes it in response to sunlight, so if you’re working indoors 60 or more hours a week, you’re almost certainly deficient too. A good dosage is around 3000 iu a day, taken first thing in the morning.
Fish oil - is probably the most well-supported supplement in existence, with proven benefits that include fighting depression, better cardiovascular health, fat loss, and improved brain function. For our purposes, the most important benefit is that it fights systemic inflammation, which can get quite high when you’re working long hours at a stressful job. Dosage: 1–3 grams a day, ideally spread throughout the day.
Greens powder - contain concentrated fruit and vegetable nutrients- vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, and assorted phytonutrients. They’re great for anyone, but particularly for people who don’t eat enough vegetables. Most experts recommend Athletic Greens, which has the best nutrient profile. However, I hate the taste of most greens supplements- they essentially taste like powdered vegetables- so my preferred brand is Chocolate Silk, which is the only flavored greens supplement I’ve found that effectively masks that vegetable taste.
Protein bars/powder It would be best if you could eat all the protein you need from whole foods (remember- .6 grams per pound of body weight per day). If you find that too difficult though- if protein is too filling, or you keep skipping meals, or you’re a vegan with few protein-rich options- it’s better to supplement than to not eat enough protein. I suggest bars over powders because they’re more filling. The highest-quality are milk and egg proteins; for vegans, rice protein is your best option.
But this won’t work for me! I still don’t have enough time!
Of course you do. Staying in shape only takes 2–3 hours a week- and you could potentially get that down to 90 minutes, if you do bodyweight workouts at home 3 times a week, pre-cook food only once a week, and either skip breakfast or always eat pre-cooked food for breakfast.
Most of the time when people say they don’t have time, what they really don’t have is energy. But that’s exactly why we a) schedule all fitness activities for when our energy will be high, and b) get plenty of sleep and eat healthy food to keep our energy levels high. If you follow this program, the energy boost you get will effectively give you more time than it costs you.
There is no reason not to prioritize your health, no matter how busy you are. Being healthy is a win-win; it gives you more energy, so that you can be more productive, feel great, and have more of everything in life.
This article originally appeared here