Simple ways to make time for exercise when you’re a busy entrepreneur

I’ve had a love / hate relationship with exercise for most of my life.

As a young child, I would feel embarrassed by how my fair skin would quickly glow red while playing sports at school.

When I realised as a teenager that I wasn’t naturally athletic and slender like the rest of my family, the connection between exercise and my embarrassment magnified.

Then as I grew older, I remember entering a period of my life where I felt my relationship with exercise change. I would force myself to work-out in an attempt to combat my curves. I wanted to feel strong, fit and light – these were after all what I’d been socialised to believe were beautiful (even if my loved ones would tell me I already was so).

I would vigorously workout for at least two hours per day – usually both morning and night. I tricked myself into thinking that I was doing it for health and fitness. I remember feeling so proud every time I beat my running times and increased my lifting weights. And I’ll never forget the pride I felt when I gave the guys a run for their money while undergoing an AFP fitness test.

People would compliment me on how great I looked and on how much weight I had lost. Some would tell me that I “needed to eat a burger” and I remember feigning outrage, but privately accepting it as a compliment.

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Given I also worked in the healthy weight and physical activity area of government, I spent most of my time at work and at home thinking about eating well, moving our bodies and what constituted a ‘healthy weight’.

My body had for a long time been telling me that I was working it too hard. I hadn’t had a period in six months. My unstable hormones resulted in unpredictable emotions. I started to get sick often and began to experience injuries more frequently. But I ignored it. I would tell myself that I was still within the healthy weight range (which I was, according to my BMI) and that I was perfectly okay.

So my body tried to warn me another way – with sudden and intense urges to binge (which I would then purge by exercising for harder and longer). With my background in psychology, I luckily quickly realised that I had developed an eating disorder and privately sought help. I remember how relieved but scared I was when specialists told me that I had to regain all the weight I’d lost. It would seem that my body liked those curves, disliked the hard-core training, and preferred to be on higher end of the ‘healthy BMI’ range.

Even though I knew intellectually that all-or-nothing thinking wasn’t healthy or helpful, I found myself fearing exercise again. What was the point in training if I couldn’t aim for peak fitness without my body failing? If I returned to rigorous exercise, would I risk my body breaking down again?

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The pendulum swung back the other way. I quit the gym and started walking, doing yoga and some light resistant training.

For a long time, exercise and I had an on/off relationship.

Just when I thought I was learning to trust my body and exercise again – a few other variables came into play. I entered an era of juggling the responsibilities of becoming a new mum, student and business owner. My on/off relationship with exercise continued.

It was in this new chapter of my life that I slowly learned (and in truth, am still learning) to change my relationship with exercise. I had to find a way where I could consistently make time for it in my life, where I could balance the tension of being gentle with being strong, and where I could become aware of the internalised oppressive beliefs that were holding me hostage to an unhealthy relationship with my body.

I suspect I am not the first person to have had such a complicated relationship with exercise. Perhaps you have too?

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These days, well at least at the time of writing this article, I generally have a more balanced view and mode of operating here.

In the remainder of this post, I thought I would share some of the ways I’ve made time for exercise in my busy life as an entrepreneur (that seems to work despite my complicated history).

  • Identify cognitive distortions and internalised oppressive beliefs. In a recent Dream For Others podcast episode, feminist consultant Cameron Airen shared that change is often most powerful when we combine self-awareness with a social awareness. In the episode, we were mostly speaking to the context of social change, but the same can be said regarding personal change too. When we find a way to tie those connections together (i.e, our self-awareness with a social awareness), we can find ways to free ourselves from the traps of our inner critic and cognitive distortions. I for one, have realised that my relationship with my body and sense of self-worth was not something that I had consciously decided myself but was tied up with social standards of what is considered attractive. I also recognised that the cognitive distortion of all-or-nothing thinking (e.g., I must be training my butt off every day or there was no point to exercising at all) was robbing me of my personal power. Becoming aware of such connections can often be incredibly freeing. 
  • Make an effort to be more ‘in tune’ with your body. Despite my previous point, I must admit that there were and still are times where I get so caught up in my work and the busyness of life that my self-awareness (and how it connects to a social awareness) wains and I find the all-or-nothing thinking, internalised oppressive beliefs and unhealthy behaviours return. When I am in genuine flow with my body and exercise, I am ‘in tune’ with my body. I can hear when she tells me what she needs. I can make moving my body challenging, fun, energising or strengthening – depending on what I most need at that time. When I am not ‘in tune’ with her, I force her to work hard or to barely move at all.
  • Remember that like all things, your needs change with the waves and cycles. I am not one of those people that finds ‘a way’ of doing things that works forever and always. In almost every area of my life, what works and doesn’t work goes in waves. This is why it is vital for me to be ‘in tune’ with and honour my body. Sometimes my body craves periods of intense daily workouts, other times it enjoys more gentle movement, and sometimes it calls for shorter bursts of activity. In the past, I would have personalised dropping daily intense workouts as a failure. These past months, however, I’ve been trying to see this as more consciously honouring those waves and cycles (of which for women, some argue may align with our menstrual cycles – something that I’m really looking forward to asking our expert mentor Claire Baker in the Gentle Business Mastermind more about this year).
  • Build habits and rituals. When I reflected on what was working well for me when I was addicted to exercise, it was the consistency I maintained in moving my body. I made an effort to find a way to prioritise movement no matter how busy life was and built habits and rituals that supported this. When I was stuck in all-or-nothing thinking, I would sometimes convince myself that such habits and rituals contradicted the idea of being in flow and listening to my body. But I realised that I could indeed do both. Building habits and rituals enabled me to not only more consistently move my body but to take some of ‘the thinking’ out of my day. For me, this currently means rising early to exercise each day before I do anything else. It means creating workouts of different intensities that I can easily bring up on my laptop and use according to where I’m currently at. Sometimes it mean just going for a walk. And it especially means remembering that these habits and rituals are there to support me, not cage me, and must therefore allow them to be flexible, adaptable, relaxed and sometimes let go too.
  • Add bursts of movement to your day. Between watching my little one, running a business, managing a home and studying my Master of Human Rights – I work long hours. I find that I am most in flow when I break my day up with little bursts of activity. I used to schedule reminders in my phone to get up every hour or two and just do one exercise. I am lucky that my home gym is now situated just outside my office and makes this easy. Sometimes I’ll punch or kick my boxing bag for a few minutes. Other times I’ll do set of bicep curls or deadlifts, play with the skipping rope, do lunges or squats, or throw the medicine ball at the wall. I find that now that my office is downstairs and I’m heading upstairs frequently to get a glass of water or have a toilet break, that I can simply integrate these little bursts into my day. If unlike me, you don’t have a home gym right near your office, the Move Your Body Playing Cards in my Freebies Library might be of use to you – they list simple body weight exercises that you can cut into cards, place into an envelope or bag and simply draw a card to complete an exercise each break.
  • Reduce sedentary behaviour and increase incidental activity. I’ve found that another simple way to add movement to my day is when I consciously focus on reducing my sedentary behaviour and increasing incidental activity. When I worked for government, this felt easier – I could park further away from the office, take the stairs, and stand while reading or talking on the phone. But now that I work from home, it can sometimes be too easy to sit at my desk or park on the couch for long hours. Buying a standing desk made a difference for me – especially when I’m in the habit of using it first thing in the morning. Taking regular breaks and ensuring I get outside for lunch certainly helps too. I went through a phase where I tracked my steps each day – but quickly learned that when I regularly move my body, take regular breaks from work and add little bursts of activity to these breaks – that I reach these steps easily.
  • Try fitness challenges (when it feels right). Every now and again, I go through periods where it feels good to train harder for a specified period of time. My body doesn’t like to do this long-term, but it sure feels good as an occasional ‘sprint’. It feels like a good ol’ spring clean for my body. There are many challenges out there, and I’m admittedly biased, but my favourite is run by my brother and personal trainer Shaun Arnold. His next 7 Week Challenge is starting up on 5 February if you’d like to join us. You can find more details here.

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This is clearly a topic that I could write a lot about, so I’m going to stop here for now. I’m curious though, what have you found works for you when it comes to making time for exercise as a busy entrepreneur? Please share in the comments below.

And finally, if you are an entrepreneur who is wanting to find ways to integrate self-care into your days and sustainably grow your business, gently – please check out the Gentle Business Mastermind that Amanda Rootsey, Nicola Newman and I will be running shortly. You can find more details here.

Gentle Business Mastermind

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