5 Tips for Prioritizing Exercise for Essential Workers

Our ideas of what is essential have shifted over the last several months as the world adjusts 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 the services have sacrificed their personal lives to serve 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 of prioritizing myself, 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 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). This can result in higher morale at work, better quality of work, and decreased burnout. Exercising can help us become more alert, engaged, and effective counselors. Yet trainings rarely place emphasis on the value of exercise when it comes to quality of work

The obvious physical and psychological benefits of exercise 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 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.

1. 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 before work. Having exercise accountability partners can help exercise become a fun part of your otherwise serious day.

2. 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 – I realize this is difficult for shift workers. Set a schedule that is linked to a number of days in a week if that works better for you. For example, “I will exercise three days this week.” 

3. Set Measurable Goals

In the field of sport and exercise psychology, we tell clients to set specific, measurable, achievable, and time-oriented goals in our work with them, 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 keep it up. 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, like MyFitnessPal, to help you track your goals and connect with other exercisers.

4. 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. 

5. 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. 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.

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 treatment or goal 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 and attend group fitness classes that 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.   

This piece originally appeared in Psychology Today.


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).

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.

Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the Online Master of Arts in Counseling Program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.