If packing your lunch, cooking dinner every night, and getting to the gym regularly sound like things you’ll be able to do half past never, you may think that real weight loss just isn’t in the cards for you right now. It’s true: healthy weight loss can be a time commitment, especially if you’re overweight thanks to a job that keeps you sedentary for much of the day or a schedule that lends itself to fast food and unhealthy snacking.
Don’t throw in the towel just yet. You don’t need extra minutes in your day to eat less or to move more, the two basic pillars of weight loss. Here’s how to reevaluate the time you do have, and smart strategies to make dropping pounds easier, no matter how swamped you are.
Ditch the all-or-nothing mentality
Every small step you take toward a healthier lifestyle matters, said Jeff Katula, associate professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University.
“People often think they have to spend an hour at the gym or eat a diet full of hummus and superfoods, and when they can’t attain that level they just give up and don’t even try,” he said.
Instead of looking at your whole day as a success or failure, Katula said, consider every decision you make a chance to do something healthy. Just because you skipped the gym doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch your calorie intake for the rest of the day, for example. (In fact, it means the exact opposite!)
Eat smaller portions
“You don’t need to cook your own food or even eat different food to lose weight,” Katula said. “You just need to eat less, and eating less doesn’t take more time or cost more money.”
Most people need to consume between 1,200 and 1,500 calories a day if they want to drop pounds in a healthy and sustainable way—and for a lot of people, eating appropriate portion sizes, skipping dessert, or not going back for seconds is one of the easiest ways to reduce their total calorie intake.
Don’t skip meals
This may seem counterintuitive after advice to eat less overall, but busy people especially may need to space out their calories more throughout the day, said Dr. Jessica Bartfield, clinical assistant professor at Loyola University’s Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care. That’s because going more than four or five hours without refueling can slow metabolism, affect hormones and insulin levels, and contribute to unhealthy food choices when you do finally sit down to eat.
“A lot of our overweight patients aren’t necessarily overeating, but their eating patterns have become so erratic—they have a cup of coffee in the morning and then no real food until late afternoon,” she said. “They key is to avoid that and keep a consistent schedule, whether that’s three meals a day and a couple of snacks, or five mini meals.”
Squeeze in more movement
Setting aside time for a 30- or 60-minute workout is ideal, “but you can burn a lot of calories in not-so-ideal workout situations, too,” Katula said. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with breaking up your 150 recommended minutes of weekly moderate exercise into short bursts throughout your day. “If you can fit in 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at lunch, and 10 minutes at night, and you can do that five days a week, you’re there,” he said.
Katula tells his patients to think of burning calories they way they think of saving money. “We do so many little things—clip coupons, buy store brands—to save a dime here or a quarter there, because we know it adds up,” he said. “Exercise is the same way: A few push-ups here and a few extra steps there can add up, too, if you do it regularly.”
Practice simple food swaps
Just like Katula tells his patients to think of exercise like they do clipping coupons, he tells them to think of their food choices the same way. “Whether it’s leaving the cheese off a hamburger or switching from mayo to honey mustard, there are so many little things you can do and so many little swaps you can make over the course of a day that can add up and save you calories without costing you any extra time.” Think about your daily beverages too, not just your solid foods. Switching from soda to seltzer water with lemon (or even to diet soda), or using less sugar in your coffee, for example, can save you several pounds a year.
Don’t sit when you can stand
You’ve heard it before: Too much sedentary behavior is bad for your heart, your brain, and yes, your waistline. Turning some of that sitting time into standing time (or, better yet, fidgeting, walking, or working-out time) will help you burn more calories. “It may not add up to much weight loss on its own, but it certainly comes into play if you’re looking to maintain any weight you’re already losing,” Bartfield said.
Standing while you work may not be an option, especially if you use a computer and your office doesn’t offer a standing-desk setup. Instead, consider other times during your day you might be able to get up off your butt: your morning train ride, staff meetings, an evening phone call with your sister, or while you unwind after dinner in front of the TV.
Make sure you’re sleeping enough
When it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day, it may be tempting to stay up late or wake up super early just to get everything done—especially if you’re trying to squeeze in regular exercise in addition to everything else you have to do. That strategy can backfire if you’re not getting enough quality shuteye for your body to function properly, Katula said.
“If you’re trying to change your behavior and lose weight by eating less and moving more, you will be more likely to achieve that if you are getting the proper amount of sleep,” he said.
Sell yourself short and you may lack the energy needed to complete your workouts; even worse, you’ll crave sugary and fatty foods that will help you stay awake, but will wreak havoc on your waistline.
Use your weekends wisely
Even if your job requires long and grueling hours, hopefully you have at least a couple of days off every week to regroup—and plan ahead.
“Even though we’re pressed for time, most of us have pretty predictable schedules,” Bartfield said. “So it can help to spend some time on Saturday and Sunday shopping for healthy food, preparing some lunch and dinner items for the week, and deciding which days you’re going to eat what.”
You can also use your day or days off to get in longer workouts than you’d have time for during the week, Katula said. “If you can get in 120 minutes of exercise over the weekend, you really only need to dedicate small amounts of time throughout the week to reach your 150-minute goal.”
Be active with friends and family
You may argue that weekends are for family time, or that you’d rather spend your precious free time with friends. Why not turn that social time into fitness time? “You don’t need to go to the gym for it to count as exercise,” Katula said. “You can play with your kids for a few hours and still get your heart rate up and see beneficial results.”
Join a pick-up sports league or a running group with friends, or swap your typical happy-hour date for a Spin class together. Or, start a weekly walking or hiking tradition with your family. Either way, being active with others can help you stick with it. “Social support is a key ingredient to any sort of behavior change,” Katula said.
Switch to a high-intensity workout
The best workout for fat loss doesn’t require hours upon hours in the gym. In fact, multiple studies show that a 20-minute high-intensity interval workout (HIIT) may burn more calories than 45 minutes chugging away on the elliptical. Try this workout, which you can do running, walking, biking, or with any type of cardio equipment: Warm up at a moderate pace for 5 to 10 minutes. Go all-out for 30 seconds, then switch to an easier pace for 45 seconds. Repeat the 30- and 45-second intervals five more times. Then cool off at an easy pace for 5 to 10 minutes.
Use healthy-meal shortcuts
We’re often told to steer clear of packaged foods for better health, but some frozen and pre-made goods can truly help you whip up a healthy meal in minutes, Bartfield said.
“There are tons of good options in the freezer aisle, either for individuals or even family-size meals, that can be prepared quickly,” she said. “Or you could buy a rotisserie chicken—take the skin off and slice it on top of a salad, or buy frozen vegetables to serve with it.” (Keep in mind that rotisserie chickens can be high in sodium, so cut back your intake from other sources.)
On nights when even that’s not an option, you still have choices about where you eat out or what prepared foods you bring home; the key is knowing ahead of time which restaurant you’ll choose and which items are healthiest, so you’re not stuck making a last-minute (bad) decision.
Set up a home gym
If you can’t devote time to driving to the gym or you’re stuck at home with kids, working out in your own home may be your best option for fitting in quick calorie-burning session. You don’t necessarily need to invest in a cardio machine—you can still get a great workout using nothing but your own body weight, or with a few simple tools (like hand weights and resistance bands) that take up next to no room in your home. Just roll out your yoga mat, set up a mirror, and you’re ready to go.
Use high-tech solutions
Few of us have the time (or patience) to keep track of all the numbers involved in weight loss—calories eaten, calories burned, steps taken, and so on. That’s why fitness trackers were invented.
“These apps and devices can save an extraordinary amount of time and make it much easier to follow a specific plan or reach daily step goals or calorie goals,” Katula said.
The type of tracker you wear on your wrist—think Fitbit, Jawbone, and Garmin Vivofit—typically log steps taken and calories burned, and pricier models may track your heart rate in real time. Plus, seeing the tracker on your wrist may serve as a constant reminder to get moving. You can also log your meals with an app like MyFitnessPal, which automatically calculates calorie totals and nutrition content for you.
Use social media
Put all that time you waste scrolling through Facebook or Twitter to good use. A 2014 Imperial College London study found that social networks can be affordable and practical alternatives to real-life weight-loss support groups like Weight Watchers. Talking about your weight loss journey with your virtual social circle can help you feel like part of a community. So join an Instagram fitness challenge, Tweet about your Pilates class, or start a Facebook group—all on your own time.
Eat more fiber
Here’s one weight-loss trick that requires zero extra time: Eat at least 30 grams of fiber a day (from food, not supplements). People who did that for a year lost almost as much weight as those who followed a complicated diet plan with 13 components in a recent University of Massachusetts study.
“For people who find it difficult to follow complex dietary recommendations, a simple-to-follow diet with just one message—increase your fiber intake—may be the way to go,” said study author Dr. Yunsheng Ma.
The logic is simple: eating foods rich in fiber, like whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables, makes you feel full, so you have less room less room high-calorie junk food.
Get a handle on stress
The way you deal with that stress can mean a lot to your waistline.
“I tell my patients the three areas affecting their weight they have the greatest control over is what they eat, how they move, and how they handle stress,” Bartfield said. “Stress has a big influence on appetite, food intake, and how the body processes calories, and I think people underestimate that.” And no, confronting your anxiety won’t add a ton of extra time to your day.
Reflect on your priorities
Take a long, hard look at what’s eating up your time. “When my patients tell me they don’t have time to lose weight, I ask them to really think about what they do have time for,” Katula said.
You may be able to pinpoint time sucks you weren’t conscious of before, or decide that certain commitments aren’t as important to you as they once were. (You may also want to talk with your boss or your partner about ways you might make your schedule more flexible.)
“Most people still find time to go to the doctor when they’re sick or get their hair done when they need a cut, but they’re not able to find a few minutes to exercise or eat well, because it just doesn’t seem as urgent,” Katula continued.
But it should be just as important, he says, in order to ward off health problems in the future. The bottom line? If you truly can’t find time to take care of yourself, it’s probably time for a change.