Ask Stew: How to Train When Life Gets in the Way

U.S. service members participate in a yoga class in Afghanistan.
U.S. service members started their morning off by participating in Power Yoga Fest 2015 at the Rock Fitness Center on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, July 16, 2015. (David Wheeler/U.S. Army photo)

Life sometimes gets in the way of a good workout, but that does not mean you cannot do something, even if that something is pure stress relief.

Over the past few months, I’ve received several emails with questions from caregivers for a sick family member about how to stay fit while caring for a loved one. This time is never easy, and we all will go through this at some point. If you are having your training time absorbed by taking up the workload of an ill spouse or caring for a parent or child, my hopes and prayers are with you and want the following advice to help you get through this difficult time.


I really think what I am going through now is why I exercise; however, I’m seeking mental strength. My wife has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is going through treatments right now. She goes through daily radiation treatment for six weeks. And for the next six weeks, it needs to be about her -- not me. I have slept in the last two mornings instead of working out, which is abnormal for me. Any recommendations for me to be better at helping, but not get sick and out of shape myself? Tom

Tom, your main goal with the decrease in your personal time is to do what you can, when you can, even if only for a few minutes. But you are right -- family first. However, you cannot be a good caregiver if you are not taking care of yourself. You need to eat healthy, drink water, wash your hands frequently, sleep well and, yes, even add in quick exercise routines into your day.

That means lighter workouts, de-stressing cardio (walks, deep breathing -- in the nose, out the mouth) and stretching. We all have time for that, even if it is for only 10 minutes after each meal.

Focus on mobility days, light calisthenics and some weights, but follow it with an easy cardio session, as mentioned above. This will help you metabolize your own stress and be less stressed when dealing with your family and friends, your wife and her doctors and nurses.

For example, a typical day of trying to squeeze five minutes of exercise into your day might look like this:

Five-minute ideas

Repeat any of the ideas below as many times as you can for five minutes:

  • Jumping jack 10, push-ups 10.
  • Walk up and down a flight of stairs, squats 10.
  • Stretch every joint in your body, even if only for a few seconds each.
  • PT Pyramid: How high can you go on the pull-ups, push-ups, core, dips pyramid. Later in the day, come back down the pyramid.

Build a five-minute circuit: Pick five exercises and do them for one minute each. If you are doing an upper-body day, try push-ups, abs of choice, dumbbell curls, overhead press or dips. If you are on a lower-body day, try squats, lunges, step-ups, leg curls or run stairs.

If you have a TRX, a few sets of dumbbells and a power tower (pull-up/dips bars), you can get very creative with your indoor home activities when you have a few minutes.

Walk and breathe deeply (in nose, out mouth). Focus on the box breathing method: four-second inhale, four-second hold, four-second exhale, four-second hold. But you can use various methods of breathing to relax you, as well as help you perform (see related post).

If you are able to get in a “full” workout, which may be only 20-30 minutes these days, try the following arrangement:

Warm up well. Stress has a way of making the body stiff, so warm up with some light cardio or calisthenics like this:

  • PT pyramid warmup: 1 pushup or squat, dynamic stretches for 25 meters or in place if no room, 2 push-ups/2 squats, 25 meters, 3/3, 4/4, 5/5. Stop at five or go to 10. Make sure you get the blood flowing before you do rigorous exercise.

Do a series of exercises in a circuit format and try to arrange them so you can “rest” with the next exercise. Maybe like an upper-body or lower-body alternating system or upper body and core.

But whatever you do, follow the short, fast, moderately intense resistance training with an easy dose of cardio like jogging, walking, swimming, biking or other. Focus on deep breathing. That will help you unwind and start you back on track to handling more of the daily grind.

Stress can become chronic if you do not manage it with proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, exercise and breathing. The goal is stress relief. You need to take care of yourself in order to be the best dad to your children and husband to your wife, while your family goes through this challenging time. Hang in there.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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