Healthy Outlook: Make the most of the little free time you get

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After a short-term schedule change, you can call me a morning empathizer.

Suffice to say I had forgotten how hectic and chaotic the typical 9-to-5 workday is. Consider my cognizance reborn.

Most of my time on the clock is spent at the copy desk each week. I come in with the rest of the copy editors in the afternoons, put the newspaper together and leave in the wee hours of the morning; then the magical news fairies sprinkle copies of the Journal-World all over town. (At least that’s how I envision it.)

That means I’m up late, but I get to sleep in a bit later. Most days, I get about the same amount of sleep as the “day people” (as we’ve lovingly dubbed them) — which means probably not quite enough — but I wake up to have breakfast at my leisure, and I often squeeze in a workout before the commute to the newsroom.

Filling in on the day side this week and having to function during “normal” hours, I’m reminded just how difficult it really is. It’s made me realize a big point I was missing.

We say we don’t have time to prepare a healthy breakfast or pack a healthy lunch, so we grab junk food in a rush to refuel. We say we don’t have time to work out, yet we’re caught up on all our favorite shows.

It’s not the time itself that’s missing; it’s the energy, which has been siphoned over the course of a long workday. So maybe we would have the time, if only we had it at the right time of day.

Unfortunately, I can’t completely rewrite the American workweek to shift the standard hours of business (although some progressive workplaces might be willing to consider modifications). It’s just not fair that the evening hours should be about you, but by that point, you’ve already given your best to someone else.

I can’t fix your 9 to 5, but I have some tips to make the most of your 5 to 9 — p.m. to a.m., that is.

Here’s what you can do to reclaim a bit of control and capitalize on your most well-rested self, with some approximated time estimates.

• Early evening, 5 to 7 p.m. — When you get home, try to resist the urge to collapse immediately. I know how comforting it looks, but the couch is not your friend; it will only continue to drain you. Once you’re down, it makes it so much harder to get back up, so don’t fall into that trap just yet.

Of course, there’s the dinner obligation. However, you can also use this time — even as little as 10 to 15 minutes — to get a head start on tomorrow’s breakfast, lunch and my favorite meal, snacktime.

Most foods will hold up overnight to easily pack into a lunchbox the next morning, at least with a little foresight; for instance, leave dressings off of salads, condiments off of sandwiches and so on. In other words, keep dry and/or crunchy stuff away from wet stuff until you’re ready to eat.

I’ve previously written about make-ahead breakfasts to simplify your mornings, and I’ve shared some recipes for healthy green smoothies that are quick to make, but even quicker to grab from the fridge when you’ve made them the night before. A lot of these things are also freezable. You can find those articles at bit.ly/ljwbreakfast and bit.ly/ljwsmoothies.

Don’t let the dishes sit in the sink, either — finish them and any other must-do tasks before you move on with your evening.

If you take advantage of the energy you still have left at the end of the workday to get ahead for tomorrow, you’ll wake up in a better place.

• Later evening, 7 to 9 p.m. — Unwind and breathe. The hours before bedtime are ideal to relax and take time to do whatever you want to do for yourself. Self-care is so important.

Do whatever makes you happy — something you can reflect on and feel glad that’s how you spent those hours. If that’s watching TV, reading a book or scrolling through Facebook, do it; if it’s building birdhouses or re-enacting Renaissance-era plays in your living room, do that. No judgment.

• Bedtime, 9 to 10:30 p.m. — Yes, this may sound ridiculously early, but there’s a method to my madness, I assure you.

Just as kiddos function best when they brush their teeth, then grab a drink of water, then get tucked in for storytime (am I over-idealizing this part?), grown-ups also function best when they follow a bedtime routine. Establishing and sticking to a set routine will let your brain know sleep is coming soon, and it’s time to wind down. Hopefully that means you’ll spend less time tossing and turning, and more time getting quality shut-eye.

The most important thing is to stick to that bedtime, and try not to deviate too much, even on the weekends. Our bodies were made to stick to a rhythm, and even though we may not realize the cause, we — just like the kiddos — get grumpy when things throw off our groove. And you can’t “repay your sleep debt” by sleeping in late on the weekends, research has shown.

• Rise and shine, 5:30 to 6:30 a.m. — Remember how I sent you to bed early? This is why.

After the past few days this week, I cannot fathom having the energy to exercise in the evenings after putting all of my zest into daytime work. If you can do it, that’s excellent and you should be proud of that — but I know I personally would be unable to stick to a consistent workout routine if it were dependent on my evening hours.

Instead, I propose getting up early enough to give yourself time to eat breakfast — which will go much faster if you already made it yesterday — and setting aside about 45 minutes for a complete workout, including a warmup and a cooldown. (Hint: If you lay out your workout clothes the night before, that will save another few moments in the morning.)

If you do this 4 out of 5 workdays and once on the weekends, you will exceed the American Heart Association’s physical activity recommendations for overall cardiovascular health. You will also feel awesome, and you’ll probably notice quickly that on the days you do work out, you feel more alert and energetic all day at work, despite burning energy in the mornings. But, as the AHA says, anything is better than nothing.

• Back to the grind, 8 to 9 a.m. — It should be easy to pack the lunch you made yesterday and get ready to head back to work. I’d recommend listening to happy music on the way to work, but obviously, that’s a personal preference.

I will work on changing the world, or at least work schedules … but in the meantime, I hope these tips help. If you have other advice for how folks can make their evenings and mornings more healthy and functional, I’d love to hear from you.

About Healthy Outlook

Healthy Outlook is a column written by Journal-World reporter and Health section editor Mackenzie Clark, in hopes of helping readers make their lives a little bit happier, healthier and more active.

Have questions about the world of health and wellness in Lawrence, or a health story idea? Contact Mackenzie:

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