in: Fitness, Health & Fitness

• Last updated: October 7, 2023

You Only Have 15 Minutes to Work Out. What Should You Do?

You’ve established an exercise routine that has you working out 60 minutes a day. Nice work, champ!

Most days, you can stick with that routine. 

But what do you do when you don’t have an hour to work out? 

Maybe you’ve got extra work that’s due. Maybe you’re traveling. Maybe kids’ activities are taking up a larger than usual chunk of your day. 

Whatever the reason, you’ll likely find yourself in situations where you can’t stick to your regular 60-minute (or 45-minute) workout routine and only have 30, 20, or just 15 minutes to exercise. 

What should you do? 

Do Something Rather Than Nothing

Behavioral scientist Michelle Segar works with people to develop healthy eating and exercise habits. In our podcast interview with her, she said perfectionism is one thing that keeps people from exercising regularly. They engage in all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to exercise: “Well, if I can’t do my full 60-minute workout, then it’s not worth exercising at all!”

The reality is that the benefits of exercise accrue over time, and that all physical activity is good for you, regardless of whether it comes in 15-minute or 60-minute stints. In fact, research has found that just a few minutes of vigorous activity a day reduces your cancer mortality risk by 40% and your cardiovascular mortality risk by almost 50%! 

Not only do the healthifying effects of exercise add up over the long term, but a short burst of activity will improve your mood and stress levels immediately. 

Plus, getting in a workout, however short, keeps you consistent with exercising, solidifying the physical activity habit in your life. The more you solidify that habit, the more you ensure you’ll get the many benefits of physical activity for years and decades to come.

So get it out of your head once and for all that it’s not worth exercising if you can’t do a full workout. 

When it comes to moving your body, something is always better than nothing, even if it’s only 15 minutes of something. 

Use Your Constraints as an Opportunity to Be an Exercise MacGyver

Instead of getting frustrated that you only have 15 minutes to work out, use it as an opportunity to participate in the art of improvisation. Have fun with the creativity that arises when your back’s against the wall. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.

For me, this is the most helpful mindset shift. It’s switching from feeling frustrated that my ideal exercise plans were ruined to getting playful about what I can still do to move my body in a limited timeframe. 

Be an Exercise MacGyver!

Focus on Workout Density 

If you don’t have time to do your regular workout, my barbell coach, Matt Reynolds, recommends shifting your focus to maximizing the “density” of your workout. That means doing as much work as possible in the time you have available. 

You can make your 15-minute (or 10- or 20-minute) workout dense in all sorts of ways:

Do one set of AMRAPs. Let’s say you were scheduled to do 3 sets of 5 on the squat, 3 sets of 5 on the bench press, and 3 sets of 5 on the deadlift. Well, if you only have 15 minutes, you don’t have time for all those reps. 

Instead of doing 3 sets of 5 on each lift, do one set for as many reps as possible (AMRAP). So you’d do a set of squats for as many reps as possible, a set of the bench press for as many reps as possible, and a set of the deadlift for as many reps as possible. 

You might have to lower the weight slightly, but that’s okay. The goal is to get in as much work as you can in the short amount of time you have. With this suggestion, and all the others, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

Do supersets. Another way to add density to your workout is to do supersets. 

Supersets are when you perform two different exercises one right after another. When doing supersets, you want to combine exercises that work different muscles. This allows one group of muscles to recover while you’re working the other. 

A superset can pair together something like bicep curls and tricep dips. But since we’re trying to get the most bang for our buck here, do ones that involve compound exercises that work more than one muscle group. For example, you could combine a lower-body exercise, like the squat, with an upper-body exercise, like the shoulder press. Or you can pair a pushing exercise, like the push-up, with a pulling exercise, like the pull-up. 

With a superset, you perform the exercises back to back and then rest between the supersets. While the standard interval of rest between weightlifting sets is ~2 minutes, you can get away with taking a shorter rest when you’re doing supersets, as the first muscle group you worked already got some rest while you performed the second exercise in the pair. If you’re really short on time, go for broke and skip the rest between sets altogether. 

Do a bodyweight prisoner workout. If you don’t have access to weights during your abbreviated workout window, try doing a prisoner-type bodyweight workout. They don’t require any equipment, can be done in 15 to 20 minutes, and leave your body plenty fatigued. 

One of my favorite bodyweight workouts to do when I’m pressed for time or on vacation is CrossFit’s Cindy WOD. 

Set yourself a time limit for the workout. It could be 10, 15, or 20 minutes. Then do as many rounds as possible of the following:

  • 5 pull-ups
  • 10 push-ups
  • 15 air squats

Just repeat that sequence as many times as you can until your timer goes off. There’s no resting between sets or rounds unless you get so tired you have to stop. Cindy will torch calories and send your heart rate soaring. It’s brutal, but you get a lot of work in!

Do HIIT. HIIT alternates very intense bursts of exercise with periods of rest. It’s perfect for small time windows; in fact, you can’t do HIIT any other way (it’s impossible to sustain the all-out effort it requires over a longer period of time).

You can do HIIT with bodyweight exercises or a kettlebell, or on a treadmill, elliptical machine, or bike. Whatever allows you to crank your heart rate up. Choose the modality you prefer.

When you’re doing HIIT as a regular part of your anaerobic training, you’ll want to follow the guidelines we’ve laid out here, which start beginners with a 1:5 work-to-rest ratio. But for this kind of improvised, one-off session, maximize your work density and time-to-sweat ratio by going all out for one minute and then resting for one minute. Repeat these intervals for as long as your timeframe allows.

The above should get you thinking of ways to add more density to your workouts. Experiment and use what works for you.

If you don’t have time to do the kind of effort-dense workout that produces a sweat (and then clean up that sweat with a post-workout shower), just take a walk. Even a short walk is crazy good for both your physical and mental health. If you want to increase the intensity slightly, put on a weighted backpack or Heavyhands it. But a standard stroll is fine too.

Taking any kind of walk will show yourself that you’re committed to daily physical activity. It’s a way to reinforce your physical identity. Exercise is just something you do. It’s part of who you are!

You’ll carry that momentum over to your next full-length workout.

Remember, doing something is always better than doing nothing!

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