The Lunch Hour Workout

No time to work out? Try a lunchtime fitness break.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Charlotte Grayson Mathis, MD

"I'll have a chicken salad sandwich on whole-wheat toast, a tall glass of iced tea, and a 30-minute workout -- to go!"

It still may sound a bit strange, but experts say that combining fitness and lunch is one of the best ways to incorporate exercise into a busy lifestyle.

"From CEOs to college students, working out during a lunch break is growing in popularity, and it really is a fun and easy way to get more physical activity into your life," says Craig Valency, a personal trainer at the Scrippts Ranch Bally Total Fitness club in San Diego.

Some workout facilities, like the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center in Dallas, have established restaurants on the premises, so members can grab a healthful meal and a full-body workout in a single trip.

But is a lunch-hour workout really effective? And is it really possible to exercise and still have time to eat, shower, and get back to work -- all within 60 minutes?

"It is going to take a little bit of planning and some coordination, but not only can it be done, it's often easier than you think," says Mari Croze, a personal trainer at the Central Michigan State University Fitness Center.

For example, on days you plan to work out, make sure you've packed your gym bag with everything you need for the day, wear work clothes that make it easy for you to change, and bring a brown-bag lunch.

And don't forget that lunch-hour workouts don't have to take place at a gym. Bike riding, in-line skating, even walking to and from a restaurant can all count as a lunch-hour workout, Croze says.

Intensity Is Key

Whether you're lifting weights in a gym or walking to the deli, experts say the key to benefiting from a "quickie" workout is to work harder.

"What you're going for here is an accumulated effect, and it's not about the length of your workout, it's about the intensity -- that's what makes the difference," says Phil Tyne, director of the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center.

"Research has shown that even just 15 minutes of exercise can net you nearly the same effects as 60 minutes of working out, if you increase the intensity," adds Tyne, a former conditioning coach for the San Diego Chargers.

The overall trend in fitness is away from long aerobic sessions and toward shorter workouts, even when time isn't a factor, Valency says.

"If you do a short-burst, high-intensity workout, you also get a calorie burn that lasts after you finish working out, so it's also ideal if you want to lose weight," Valency tells WebMD.

And what kind of workout can you do at lunch? Just about any workout you could do at any other time, in an abbreviated form.

Some gyms offer noontime classes that are ideal for a lunch break. Or you could log 20-30 minutes on your favorite cardio machine, perhaps using an interval program for a higher-intensity workout. Weight lifters might work a different body part at each lunchtime session, or alternate strength-training days with cardio days.

Circuit training -- short bursts of resistance exercise using moderate weights and frequent repetitions, followed quickly by another burst of exercise targeting a different muscle group -- can give you a full-body workout in a hurry. (The popular Curves gyms use this approach). Or you could partner with a co-worker for a jog or power walk at a park near your workplace.

Fueling Up

While a lunch-hour workout is great, experts say don't forsake some face time with food in order to fit one in: "You body needs to be refueled and it's essential you do eat, so don't skip lunch in favor of exercise,"' says Valency.

You can do both if you follow a few simple rules. First, all our experts agreed that you should eat after, not before, your workout.

Also important: Go for a light, lower-fat lunch, which is easier to digest after activity. Croze also suggests brown-bagging your lunch on days you have a workout scheduled, to cut down on travel time to and from a restaurant.

On workout days, Valency says, it's also important to have a healthy breakfast, followed by a high-protein snack (like some cottage cheese and a few crackers) about three hours into your day. Then, right before your lunchtime workout, he recommends a "shooter" of whey protein powder in a drink or energy bar to help you push your muscles to the max.