The Lunch Hour Workout

Last Editorial Review: 8/25/2006

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.

"After your workout, you can also have a quick, high-carb snack -- even a small candy bar -- but you should also have a light lunch within no more than 45 minutes after working out," says Valency.

Back to Work

One reason high-intensity, short-burst workouts are effective is that you're pushing your muscles to the point of temporary fatigue.

"It's all about progressive overload -- stepping up the intensity while cutting down the time, so your muscles are pushed to the point where you feel you have to stop," says Tyne.

That doesn't mean you'll be heading back to work sore, tired, and achy, experts say. The key is to start slowly and build intensity gradually.

"The [muscle] recovery period is different for every person and fitness level at the start," says Tyne. "So if you haven't been exercising, you'll want to start by doing some light activity and working up to the point where you're pushing your muscles to fatigue."


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And not only should your workout session not leave you drained, it should help energize you for the rest of the workday.

"Anything that gets the blood flowing into your muscles and increases your oxygen level -- which movement does -- is going to make you feel much more alert, more awake, and better able to handle your workload," Valency says. "I've seen it do wonders for that typical afternoon work slump that many people experience."

Because a lunchtime workout is shorter in duration, experts say you're not likely to work up too much of a sweat. But if you do, a quick sponge bath, some deodorant, and a dousing of body powder may be all you need to get back to work looking as refreshed as you feel.

"You're not coming out of these short workouts soaking wet, so it's pretty easy to towel off and splash some cold water here and there and you're good to go," says Valency.

In-Office Fitness

If there's a gym at or near your workplace, that's probably your best bet for a lunchtime workout, since many have programs tailored to get you in and out quickly.

But what if the nearest gym is a 45-minute drive, or costs more than you can afford to spend on lunch? And supposing a rainstorm or heat wave precludes an outdoor walk or bike ride?

Experts say you can still get in a quickie workout, right in the office.

"If you have a private office and you can shut the door for 30 minutes, that's ideal," says Croze. "If not, try a ladies' room, an employee lounge, a conference room. All you really need is a few feet of space where you can do some exercises without disturbing anyone."

Here are some office-friendly moves that our experts say really work:

  1. Chair squats: Pull your chair away from the desk, then stand up and sit down in rapid succession as many times as you can.
  2. Leg stretch: Sitting on a chair, bring one leg up so that the ankle of one foot is resting on the opposite knee, then stretch and bend over 4-5 times. Repeat with the other leg.
  3. Wall push-ups: Stand facing a wall, with your arms up and palms touching the wall in front of you. Lean into the wall, then push yourself back to starting position.
  4. Chest stretch: Sit in your chair and stretch your arms wide out to the sides until your feel your chest start to rise. Bring arms back to center. Repeat five or six times.
  5. Knee bends: Still sitting in your chair, rapidly bring your knees as close to your chest as you can. Lower and repeat as many times as you can. You may need to hold onto the chair arms at first, but work toward using only the muscles in your abs and trunk to pull your knees up.

Most important: If you work at a computer, set up an on-screen reminder to tell you to get up and stretch once every hour.

Published August 25, 2006.

SOURCES: Craig Valency, American College of Sports Medicine-certified trainer, Bally Total Fitness, San Diego. Mari Croze, American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, Central Michigan State University Health and Fitness Facility, Mount Pleasant, Mich. Phil Tyne, director, Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center, Baylor Health Care System, Dallas.

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