Lunch on the run: Fitting a workout into your workday

Don't expect to find these workers dozing at their desks in the late afternoon.

They've discovered the secret to staying alert all day long exercising during their lunch breaks.

Sure, a slice of lasagna or a big slab of tiramisu may sound more appealing than working out. But personal trainers and midday exercisers say integrating movement into their work day alleviates stress, boosts energy levels and keeps their waistlines from bulging.

"For a lot of people, when they are under stress at the office, they will go and have a large lunch for comfort," said Louise Allen, a fitness trainer at the Jim Parsley Center's City Fitness. "But after that large lunch, their blood is going straight to their stomach, they feel lethargic and sometimes feel guilty about what they ate."

Sound familiar?

Perhaps a lunchtime workout of jogging, walking, lifting weights, inline skating, swimming or cycling is in order. In addition to an energy boost, a midafternoon workout can turn exercise into a permanent, healthy routine.

Since lack of time is the number one barrier to exercise in America, according to the American Dietetic Association, fitting in fitness during the work day can create a needed time slot for exercise.

Leigh Crews, a national spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, says working out during lunchtime is a perfect solution for time-crunched parents whose busy mornings and evenings are often filled with ball games, band concerts and homework.

"People who schedule a time for workouts, whether it's early morning or at lunch, are more likely to stick with their program because it becomes part of their daily routine," she said. "People who plan to 'work exercise in' around their other daily obligations usually find that the workout gets put off until it is too late."

Noontime jogging

Dan Tiedy of Vancouver, Wash., spends his lunch break jogging a 10-mile route along Officers Row and the Vancouver waterfront with friends Bob Croucher and Steve Woodley rain or shine. Tiedy, a marathon runner and triathlete, has been running midday since 1995 because spending time with his family in the evening is a priority he's not willing to shift.

"If I didn't run at lunch, I wouldn't be able to do it," he said. "Having enough time is the hardest issue to overcome. Because I want to spend the majority of my free time with my family, I have to make sacrifices elsewhere to fit my training time in, such as not going out to lunch or less sleep for the occasional early runs and swims."

In addition to saving money on lunches out, Tiedy says midday workouts relieve stress and boost his mood.

"It gives me time to think and reflect before heading back into work," said Tiedy, who works for Hash Inc., a Vancouver animation software company. "It makes for a great day. When I miss a run I really get antsy to get outside and I actually feel quite sluggish and lazy. I have a lot less energy than I do if I exercise."

Janice Berry, a bus driver for the Vancouver School District for the past 20 years, discovered the stress release an afternoon workout can provide when she began regularly heading to City Fitness on her lunch breaks about a year ago.

Her hourlong workout routine of strength training and walking on a treadmill is a natural attitude-booster, she said. Regular exercise also alleviates many of the aches and pains that develop with age, plus it keeps her immune system supercharged.

"I found that instead of buying a whole bunch of Excedrin, you can go to the gym and get the same good results," she said, with a laugh. "It's a neat time just to unwind. Sure, when I get back on the bus, I might look a little red-faced and sweaty, but this keeps me healthy. If I had to go exercise after work, I know that I'd find lots of excuses not to go. This helps me not to fall off the wagon."

Since most gyms and many office buildings have showers, getting cleaned up after exercise is often possible. Also, a growing number of employers are open to extending lunch breaks as long as it doesn't interfere with deadlines. Those who take 90 minutes to two hours at lunch, for example, can suggest coming into work early or staying late to compensate for the time, trainers and lunchtime exercisers say.

For workers who are restricted to a one-hour lunch break, 30 minutes of exercise can go a long way and still leave time to change in and out of workout gear.

A recent study by the American College of Sports Medicine found that 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week offers healthy benefits including weight loss, bone density preservation and protection from heart disease.

To amp up calorie-burning power during short workouts, consider exercising at a higher intensity. For example, supercharge a walk or run by picking up the pace once every 10 minutes or so.

Nutritionally speaking

The urge to overeat during the work day can be heightened by stresses at work and lunches spent at tempting restaurants that offer large (and often high-fat) portions. That's certainly not to say that eating out should be off-limits, personal trainers say.

Those who choose to exercise at lunchtime, however, will typically find that exercise acts as an appetite suppressant, or at least a distraction from eating.

"If you are working out at lunch, you are less likely to overeat due to time and comfort considerations," Crews said. "Also, a workout even a moderate one will raise the metabolism for a period of time afterward. It will give you energy to complete the workday and come back to work with a sense of accomplishment and positive self-image."

Fitness-minded employers benefit

Workers who work out often take fewer sick days, have more energy and boast higher morale on the job, according to Steve Black, a physical therapist and athletic trainer.

Employers are recognizing the benefits, fitness trainers say, and a growing number of them are offering reduced-rate gym memberships for employees, on-site fitness facilities or allowing for longer lunch breaks as a result.

"Lunch workouts are a growing trend, especially since these are tense times for business," said Debbie Mandel, a personal trainer, lecturer on stress-reduction and author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul. "Exercise is a great stress reducer, oxygenates the brain and enables one to focus."

At Hewlett-Packard Co. in Vancouver, the company's approximately 1,700 employees have 24-hour access to a fitness facility that offers weights, cardiovascular equipment and aerobics classes (ranging from yoga and pilates to step classes and an "urban boot camp" class) as well as volleyball and basketball courts.

Terry Parsley, who manages the fitness center, said fit employees benefit with time-saving on-site access to fitness facilities. The employer benefits with higher production, lower absenteeism, reduced health care costs and employee retention, she said.

"Lunch is a very popular time for people to work out here," she said. "A lot of people take an exercise break to calm down after a meeting and lower their stress level. Other people unwind right after work here. The culture of this company is that it is encouraged to exercise it is never frowned upon to come in."

Nearly half of the company's employees are enrolled at the fitness center, and about 28 percent use the facilities regularly, Parsley said.

"A lot of people here tell me that they have less of an excuse not to exercise with the gym right here on-site," she said.

What (and when) to eat

According to Runner's World magazine and the Physician and Sportsmedicine Journal, people who exercise during their lunch break sometimes find themselves famished before their workout is complete.

Instead of exercising on empty, consider bringing a midmorning snack to work. Also, active people tend to get hungry about every three to four hours. Eating small meals can keep the metabolism charged and keep cravings for junk food at a minimum.

It's best to eat 100 to 400 calories about one or two hours before a workout. Select foods that are rich in carbohydrates and low in fat such as: a breakfast bar, a slice of whole-grain toast topped with fruit spread, a half-cup of mixed dried fruit or a packet of instant oatmeal.

After a workout, it's crucial to refuel the body, fitness trainers say. Pack easy-to-eat foods from home for desktop dining.

Consider tossing in prepackaged yogurts, dried and/or fresh fruit, nuts, cut raw vegetables, cereal bars, high-fiber crackers, leftovers from the night before, microwavable soups, tortilla wraps filled with lean meat and spinach, vegetable-stuffed pita bread or sandwiches.

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