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Why I prioritize working out over sleep

Categories: Your life


This will either annoy you, surprise you, or make you wonder if I have a housekeeper:

I go to the gym five times a week.

For more than three years I haven’t broken this routine unless I was sick or traveling. When I am sick or traveling (and can’t get to the hotel gym) I get really cranky because I can’t work out. Once a week, on Wednesdays, I get up at the ungodly hour of 5:30am to make it to a 6am spin class (the first 10 minutes of which I spend wondering if I’ve lost my mind completely).

There are lots of reasons why going to the gym ranks higher on my list than say, getting enough sleep. I am generally a stress-case, but when I spin or feel my abs burn in our Pilates class I don’t have any energy left over for stressing. I like the feeling of accomplishment and the way my muscles ache and feel alive when I get done with my workout. I am horrible at cutting out horrible-for-me things like carbs and working out regularly is what allows me to consume some of them while not expanding horizontally too much.

But really why I think working out is so high on my daily to-do list is because it’s often my only “me time” and I try to make the most of it. I love driving to the gym, listening to NPR, walking in and putting my phone on silent. I like reading US Weekly and People and other girly magazines I never otherwise read or watching the Food Network while I work out on the elliptical. Some days I go to the coffee shop next door to my gym and treat myself to a coffee or tea for the drive back home.

Don’t get me wrong, though, because on many, many days I really don’t feel like going to the gym. (Like, say, last Wednesday when it was 15 degrees out at 5:30 in the morning!) The hour and a half that my gym time takes — including drive there and back — is extremely difficult to find and I make up for it by going to sleep later or getting up early to get work done, or cook next day’s dinner, pack my daughter’s lunch or write holiday cards.

But I keep going because I know that once I get there, on most days, I feel good about being there and having my little “me” time. I know how hard it is for busy working moms to find time to fit in a workout and I always feel certain comraderie with a fellow mom who, like me, rushes through the shower and then starts her conference call while still getting dressed in the locker room.

How often do you make it to the gym or workout? When do you do it — before work, during lunch, at night?

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18 comments so far...

  • I have in the not-so-distant past also gone regularly 4 days a week, with a hike on the weekend. However, I have succumbed recently to the travel/sickness issue. This is much more of a challenge for me, because of my work schedule it means that I have to be up by about 4:30, which is early even for a morning person.

    But, I agree, this is not optional for me. No matter what, I really do have to do this more often than not. My mood, my productiveness, and general ability to cope are completely dependent on my being able to fit this ‘me’ time in.

    Aimers  |  December 7th, 2008 at 10:14 pm

  • This certainly didn’t surprise me. I have been reading your blog for about five months now.
    I have been working on waking up earlier for the past two weeks to work out on a daily basis. I am still working on it. I tend to choose sleep.
    This certainly was inspiring. Thanks.

    Vera Babayeva  |  December 8th, 2008 at 9:07 am

  • Hey, I do this too! For me, I do it b/c I feel it really helps keep my proverbial boat from capsizing. Continuing with the boat metaphor, my life is so busy, I feel that I am constantly in rough waters. (Ironically, going to the gym does not help in that dept b/c it takes up time.) Only rarely are the waters tranquil and I can enjoy those moments of peaceful sailing. But I know that working out helps balance me emotionally as well as physically. All those things you said about the Me Time, the adrenalin afterwards and the “good aches”, and the feeling that I don’t have to eat like a rabbit to avoid obesity (my MIL calls me a “Good Little Eater” :-) )…Yes! But I differ a little bit in the scheduling: I did the 5 am wakeup for gym for about 5 years, but it wore me into the ground. Thank heavens there is a gym near my office, so now I go during lunch. It’s not the best solution, as it uses up my full hour — even though it’s close by, I still have to factor in the clothes changing et. al. — and then I try to eat my lunch as inconspicuously & quickly as possible at my desk afterwards. (I don’t think my boss likes this.) Plus there are a number of things I don’t like about this gym. But it’s convenient and allows me to get my workouts in at lunchtime, so I’m very grateful for its existence. Dunno what I’d do if it closed….

    Paula  |  December 8th, 2008 at 10:23 am

  • I don’t. And I should. But I HAVE to get at least 8-9 hours of sleep per night or I cannot function.

    Right now, I feel like I need to prioritize spending quality time with my daughter over working out. Hitting the gym means an hour less time with her in the evenings. It’s not worth it.

    Robyn  |  December 8th, 2008 at 10:43 am

  • I sleep. I try to squeeze the gym in during lunch but that’s even a challenge because then I don’t get to eat lunch! I’d love to try the early morning bit but I’ve got to be there for my kids as they’re too young to be left alone and Daddy is out the door for work at 5 am. I’m open to suggestions if you’ve got any.

    Kate  |  December 8th, 2008 at 11:58 am

  • Aimers - I don’t think I could have described it better: “my mood, my productiveness, and general ability to cope…” Exactly.

    Vera - in everything I read I see that more sleep is more important:)

    Paula — wow, 5 am for years? You rock, I could never do that. Lunchtime most days here also:)

    Robyn — I cringe to take away an hour from my kiddo for the gym also:)

    Kate — lunchtime is when I can make it work most days as well. Can you eat later?

    Nataly  |  December 8th, 2008 at 12:04 pm

  • Nataly, I am amazed at your determination, and yes, the post is inspiring. I’ve been trying to fit in morning workouts/jogs for the past year and it did not work. Mornings are very tough for me and when I didn’t wake up to exercise I would stress over it and feel guilty the rest of the day. I also can’t fit in a workout at other times, although lunch may be somewhat doable. However the solution that’s starting to work for me is the determination to fit in a minimum of 20 minute workout every day (usually more but I tell myself that if I do 20 I can stop :) ), at some point during the day. Usually that’s several exercise routines from Sparkpeople or a set or two of 10 minute latin dance cardio. It is nowhere near the intensity of a proper gym workout, but to me it is better than nothing and I am also feeling my muscles working, and relax during the stretches, and overall feel an increase in energy without being absolutely exhausted from waking up this early. I am usually able to fit those 10 minute stretches in the evening with my 3 year old running around, but he knows not to bug me at those times and most of the time he is pretty good with it. In general I try to fit it in right after work, the earlier the better, but on days when it does not happen I stick to my resolution to exercise and do it right before going to sleep, yes, yesterday I finished at 12:03 am :).

    Maria  |  December 8th, 2008 at 12:38 pm

  • Great post! I’m right there with you, Nataly. When I left the house this morning to go to my 6am spin class, I was barely awake. But when I finished and arrived home as my family was just waking up, I had a huge sense of accomplishment. The best part of working out in the early morning is that it’s not hanging over my head all day long. I make an effort to work out or do some form of exercise every day and I put it on my calendar. Exercising helps me sleep better. Furthermore, when I know I have to get up for class, it forces me to go to bed earlier and also finish eating earlier, too. I’m not perfect and certainly don’t get up at dawn every single day. But on the 2-3 days per week that I do, I feel proud all day long. For me, it comes down to making the time for myself. It’s not always easy (especially with nearly 3-year-old twins, work, plus a busy spouse) but I find that I am much nicer to be around and much more centered when I’ve gotten in a run or spin or any kind of physical activity. Best advice I ever got was to think of exercise like brushing your teeth - just make it a habit. And one other piece of advice — don’t forget the importance of rest and recovery. You don’t have to go nuts every single day at the gym. Listen to your body. Often you’ll improve endurance, speed, etc, when you give your muscles time to recover. And one last thing — a number of trainers I have interviewed for my site, The Well Mom, have told me to remember that every little bit of exercise helps. So if you can’t make the time to get to the gym - figure out ways to add in more activity to your day. Take the stairs, go for a walk at lunch, stand while you are talking on the phone, park further away, do sit ups or push ups while you’re playing with your kids. It’s all about the mindset!

    Heather Cabot  |  December 8th, 2008 at 1:06 pm

  • ooh how i want to work out 5 times a week! ok really i just want all the benefits with out any of the work haha! I know that when i AM working out (before i had my son) it seemed i really didnt need as much sleep as i thought (you know, 7 as opposed to 9 hours was just fine!) but now getting back into that groove has not happened. it’s been 2 and a half years and i have not really worked out much at all. i miss it… maybe the economy will prompt some gyms to lower their memberships and i can go at night after my son is asleep! it’s better than sitting at home watching TV while working!!

    Kate  |  December 8th, 2008 at 1:08 pm

  • I am a lot like you. I work out five times a week too, and yes, it IS hard to find the time! I don’t belong to a gym, and actually that’s one thing that helps me, because it cuts out any gym commuting time. I run three times a week outdoors near my house (or, if it’s really cold or raining, I use the no-frills elliptical machine we have at home, bought as my “after-childbirth” reward to myself after my first daughter was born!). The other two times I do a workout DVD in my living room.

    I try to do two of my workouts on the weekend (one on each day), so the time-crunch isn’t such an issue (since my husband is home to do child-care duty). But the other three I squeeze in at the end of the day, either the minute my husband gets home from work and can take over watching the girls, or after dinner when he’s doing the bathtime routine. It’s hard, though. At least once a week I miss dinner with my family, or at the very least they’ve started without me. A lot of times I’m so tired by 6 p.m. I can’t imagine working out (though I usually do it anyway). But overall, exercising (especially running) regularly helps keep me sane, just like you, so I’m glad to make the time for it. Being a runner is also a really big part of my identity–if you ask me to describe myself I’d include “runner” right along “psychologist, mom, writer, wife” etc.–so it’s worth it to me to carve out the time, even though other things (sleep, getting much writing done) get short shrift as a result.

    Shannon  |  December 8th, 2008 at 4:09 pm

  • When I’ve wanted to squeeze in workouts at home, I use the bottom stair like doing a step class: up L up R down L down R. It’s boring, but what’s good is that it’s right within range of the TV. My son can watch something and in essence I am watching with him, and can we can comment (who cares if I’m panting) with each other on whatever program it is. He gets to watch something, I get a workout in, win-win. But even if your stairs aren’t near the TV, I’ve used one of those toddler footstools, or one can pretend jump rope, or just lift alternating knees up…that’s VERY aerobic. :-)

    Paula  |  December 8th, 2008 at 4:13 pm

  • I run 3-4 times a week and have been doing so since I was 15. I didn’ t feel like myself again after having kids until I was running again. It’s easier now since I work from home, but I fit it in when I worked full-time and even when I was also going to grad school and had my first baby. Everything else falls into place (or I care less if it doesn’t) if I go for a run. And, my stress level would skyrocket if I had to think about what I ate all day long, especially since chocolate is also an important part of my life.

    Mom to 3

    Amy  |  December 8th, 2008 at 5:41 pm

  • Nataly, the site won’t let me log on. I wanted to send you a message about it or a comment, but I can’t do that unless I am logged on. I tried using the feedback link at the top of the page, but it doesn’t work. I’m resorting to this. SORRY! Is there something wrong or do I need to re-register my account because of the new format or something? If you could let me know, I’d really appreciate it. I know you are busy, but I hate to lose out on using this site!

    Robyn  |  December 8th, 2008 at 6:32 pm

  • Finally able to log on. Sorry to bug you!

    Robyn  |  December 8th, 2008 at 6:34 pm

  • Thanks for this post. I feel like a big old martyr about the whole workout thing. I have been trying to get back into it since becoming a mom. I totally tend to choose sleep over working out, but I, like most people here, feel better and actually need less sleep when exercising. I used to be an avid runner and sooo want to get back into it. Think this article might have been my “tipping point.” I’m going to bite the bullet and make myself drive the 1/2 mile to my gym to run tomorrow to use the treadmill since it’s too cold and icy to run outside anymore.

    Stacey  |  December 9th, 2008 at 11:49 am

  • I workout when I can. On Mondays and Wednesdays I work out at lunchtime because we have activities in the evenings. On the other days I work out in the evening. It is difficult but I know it is best for me. I wish I had a Wii Fit. I hear it is a godsend.

    Erika  |  December 11th, 2008 at 9:23 am

  • I just found this blog - hooray! Sometimes I feel like a lunatic that I even bother to try going to the gym when I so often feel overwhelmed. Glad to hear others struggle with the same feelings. I have only managed to get to the gym twice a week at best since my boys were born (almost two years ago) - but even that twice-weekly routine is a huge help! I never feel like going - but after about 10 or 15 minutes I start feeling good and then I can push through. I have to remind myself of this every time. My schedule of choice is the 9-11pm workout. Put kids to bed, clean up, make lunches go to gym. Good thing I have always been a night owl! Now I feel inspired to try fitting in a third night a week . . .

    Christina  |  December 18th, 2008 at 1:16 pm

  • I have not gone to the gym for the last 3 days because I have wanted sleep. I really wish I would have gone to the gym because the way I feel right now is not worth missing it….

    becca  |  April 1st, 2009 at 7:04 pm