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5 Tips for Prioritizing Exercise for Essential Workers

Exercise is essential for physical and mental health.

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Exercise is essential
Source: Pixabay

Our ideas about what is essential have shifted over the last several months as the world has adjusted to the impact of COVID-19. First responders, delivery drivers, grocery store employees, health care workers, restaurant cooks, and many others have stepped up their roles to protect and provide for society.

While the general public appreciates these services, the people providing services have sacrificed their own personal lives to help others. With facilities like health clubs closed or at limited capacity and hours, essential workers have given up regular workout routines. But if they are not well, rested, and feeling their best, they will have a harder time remaining energized during working hours. As a counselor, I recognize the difficulty for essential workers prioritizing themselves, especially during a crisis, and I hope that these five tips help people find ways to re-engage with exercise.

When you ask counselors and other health care workers what interventions have the biggest impact on stress and mental health, exercise is likely to be near the top of the list. There are numerous benefits of exercise (Sharma, Madaan, & Petty, 2006) and regular physical activity can help increase self-esteem, improve cognitive functioning, improve sleep, relieve stress, and increase energy and stamina. Additionally, it is well known that exercise has a direct link to improved physical and mental wellness (Bland et al., 2020; Halabchi, 2020; Heffernan, 2020), which can result in higher morale at work, better quality of work, and decreased burnout. Exercising can help us become more alert, engaged, and effective.

The obvious physical and psychological benefits of exercise (ACSM, 2020) lead us to believe that exercise is at the top of essential workers’ personal to-do lists. However, for many, the demands of work and home life get in the way of prioritizing exercise. In short, we struggle with the same challenges as many people we serve. Exercise is not only about hitting a number weight-wise or fitting into skinny jeans. Rather, it is a component of a healthy lifestyle with the purpose of improving our body systems so that we may live long, happy, and healthy lives. The following tips can help set you up for success as you begin planning regular exercise into your life.

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Enlist a friend or co-worker for accountability.
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Find Accountability

We know that people build resilience when they consider how others can be resources to them. Exercising is no exception. Identify colleagues and friends who also want to engage in regular exercise. Encourage each other to prioritize physical health and cheer each other on as you work toward goals. Sign up for a virtual race together, schedule a weekly bike ride, go on a walk, or use the stairs at work. Regularly check in with each other about your exercise habits and brainstorm what could make them better. If you are especially motivated, schedule an early morning workout with a friend, either virtually or together before work. Having exercise accountability partners can help exercise become a fun part of your otherwise serious day.

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Create a schedule to help you stay on track with exercise plans.
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Build Motivation

Use self-reflection to help you consider why you want to start exercising more. Understand that contemplation and planning are relevant steps in change that should not be discounted. Make a list of reasons for changing your current habits and consider what small tasks, such as changing into exercise clothes before you leave work, can help you find the motivation to start moving your body on that particular day. Pay attention to what activities seem the most interesting to you, and don’t be discouraged if it takes some searching to find the right few activities that keep your interest. The important thing is to stick to a schedule – this can be difficult for people who change shifts frequently. Set a schedule that is linked to a number of days a week if that works better for you. For example, commit to working out three days a week.

Set Measurable Goals

In the field of sport and exercise psychology, we help clients to set specific, measurable, achievable, and time-oriented goals, so our own exercise goals should be no different. If you keep track of your progress and are realistic about timelines and your abilities, then you’re more likely to keep up with exercise habits. Keep a record of physical activity and how you feel afterward and you’ll be likely to learn from your notes. Focus on small steps in addition to long-term goals. For example, if you want to run a 5k and haven’t run in years (or ever), consider a walking program to help you build your stamina over time. There are many free apps to help you track your goals and connect with other exercisers.

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Take a walk mid-shift to help you re-energize.
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Get Creative

If you feel pressed for time, don’t be afraid to get creative. A 20-minute walk at lunch, 10 minutes of strength training in the morning, or a weekend yoga session make a difference, and they’re likely to give you the energy and motivation to find more time to dedicate to exercise. There are several online programs, videos, and apps for people who are short on time and still want to have a burst of exercise during the day. If you want double benefits or need more motivation, download a fitness podcast so you can learn and move your body at the same time.

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Believe in your ability to make healthy choices,
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Believe in Your Actions

If people successfully use exercise to manage their mood and health, they are more likely to speak about exercise with others with energy and enthusiasm. They are also more likely to have exercise on their mind and incorporate it into their interactions with others, including healthy eating. If you want others to be more interested in how exercise can help their mood, then practicing what you preach may be the first important step.

Feeling Overwhelmed?

If you feel overwhelmed about the thought of creating an exercise routine and aren’t sure how to start, consider using the same type of planning that counselors use with clients. Write down clear and measurable objectives and set a time frame. Make note of potential barriers and also identify the strengths that will help you reach your goal. Consider enlisting the help of a certified personal trainer to coach you through the process and attend group fitness classes which can be accessed in person and digitally. We know that change can be slow and challenging, but it can also be exciting and rejuvenating. Consider how moving your body can build energy and enthusiasm in your work and in your life.


American College of Sports Medicine. (2020). Exercise is medicine: A global health initiative.

Bland, Kelcey A, Bigaran, Ashley, Campbell, Kristin L, Trevaskis, Mark, & Zopf, Eva M. (2020). Exercising in isolation? The role of telehealth in exercise oncology during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Physical Therapy.

Halabchi, F., Ahmadinejad, Z., & Selk-Ghaffari, M. (2020). COVID-19 epidemic: Exercise or not to exercise; that is the question! Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 11(1). https://doi.10.5812/asjsm.102630.

Heffernan, S, & Jae, S. Y. (2020). Exercise as medicine for COVID-19: An ACE

in the hole? Medical Hypotheses, 142, 109835.

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106.

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