Stay Fit While Freelancing: Health Tips for Remote Work

Stay Fit While Freelancing: Health Tips for Remote Work

The freelance lifestyle has its obvious perks—the flexibility and freedom to work when and from wherever you want. But too much of a good thing can sometimes turn into a bad thing.

The often sedentary nature of the work from home life can mean we spend way too much time sitting. There’s no commute—unless you count the walks to the kitchen for endless snacks.

Some of us also spend too much time working and forget to make time for our health. I know I’ve been guilty of forgetting to eat lunch because I’ve been too caught up in work! Or I’ll skip the gym so I can work longer. #guilty

So if you’ve worked from home for any amount of time, you know what I mean. This flexible freelance lifestyle is fantastic but it’s up to us to make the most of the flexibility and make time to stay fit and healthy. That’s what true work-life balance is all about.

So how do you prioritize your health and stay fit while working remotely? It takes some planning, organization, and staying committed to your goals. In this article, you’ll find practical advice on:

Understanding the importance of fitness in a freelance lifestyle

Freelancing can be a sedentary lifestyle for the most part. We spend a lot of time seated at our desks or preferred laptop station while looking at a screen.

When interviewed by the LA Times about his book “Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It,” Dr. James Levine said. “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”

The book was written in 2014 but the message remains true today. Too much sitting is bad for us. Levine's original scientific research shows that today's chair-based world, where we no longer use our bodies as they evolved to be used, is having negative consequences on our health. Low activity rates are a leading cause of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

Staying fit while working from home is a health imperative—physical and mental. An article published in the National Library of Medicine found that “Evidence from a meta-analysis of 49 prospective studies, including data from more than 260,000 participants, demonstrates that people with higher physical activity levels are less likely to develop depression. Evidence was also found for the protective effects of physical activity against incident stress and anxiety.”

Plus, the Harvard Business Review tells us that if we want to improve our work performance, get some exercise. The article cites its recent research which found that daily physical activity impacts task focus and job performance.

All this to say, exercise matters—for your well-being as well as for more productive work.  Just incorporating a short walk into your daily routine can be hugely beneficial—for your physical health, mental health, creativity, stress levels, and overall mood.

As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

How to incorporate regular exercise into your routine

A while ago, I shared my daily routine in: A Day in the Life of a Freelancer + Daily Routine Examples. You’ll notice that physical activity like walking, yoga or even going to the gym featured prominently in my daily routine. These days, as a new mom, my life has changed a lot. I don’t necessarily get to the gym as much as I would like to but I do still go for a walk every day (with the pram in tow). I also try to go to yoga twice a week.

Even with very limited free time these days, I’ve found that the key to making regular exercise a part of your life is planning. Choose what kind of exercise you do and when you want to do it and schedule it in.

Setting up a workout schedule

If you’re truly committed to making a change and getting fit, start by creating a workout schedule. Treat your workouts the same way you would your work hours or important meetings and appointments. Carve out time for them in advance and pencil them into your calendar or daily routine in advance.

As the famous Benjamin Franklin quote goes, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Scheduling your workouts in advance means you’re less likely to leave things to chance, therefore less likely to skip them.

What would that look like in the real world? I go for a walk with my son after breakfast every day. Additionally, my husband and I also have a shared Google calendar where we add in our gym or  yoga time each week. For example, I have a recurring spot booked for yoga every Monday and Wednesday night. I go to Pilates on Tuesday morning before my son wakes up.

Your personal schedule will look different to mine depending on your work and life commitments. Think about when you’re most likely to be able to fit a workout in - before, after, or even in the middle of the workday. It doesn’t matter when it is, but schedule it in and it’s more likely that you’ll actually make it happen.

Choosing the right kind of exercise

When planning your exercise routine, don’t forget to also think about what kind of exercise you want and need to incorporate into your routine.

Just a vague plan to “exercise” is not very likely to motivate you. Be specific about your plan, whether it’s a walk, a run, a yoga class, or some time at the gym lifting weights.

For example, as I’m postpartum and also dealing with a shoulder injury, my focus at the moment is mainly walks and low-impact activities like yoga and Pilates to regain my core strength.

The type of exercise you choose to do will depend on your fitness level, interests, or fitness goals. So, if you’re hoping to improve your cardio fitness, you might want to do more high-intensity workouts. Or, if you’re a beginner, you may choose to do some home workouts from YouTube to get your fitness journey started.

Create a varied and interesting routine to get the best results. Choose exercise you enjoy so it doesn’t feel like a chore.

Making time for movement throughout the day

As we discussed above, sitting too much can be a major problem for independent professionals who spend a lot of time on their computers. On days you simply can’t fit a workout into your schedule, make the time to at least be active intermittently.

A great way to do this is by taking active breaks throughout the day. This could mean a quick walk around the block. Or, you could use 10 minutes to do some jumping jacks or a few quick pushups. If you have children at home, taking some time to run around and play with them can also be great exercise for you.

Recent research has shown that people who recorded three or so daily bouts of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity had about a 50% reduced risk of death because of cardiovascular problems and about a 40% reduced risk of death by cancer and other causes, compared to less vigorous people.

The role of a healthy diet in staying fit

Exercise alone isn’t the solution to the well-being puzzle, of course. A balanced, nutritious diet is essential for a healthy life—at and outside of work.

Proper nutrition (a healthy mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat) is also imperative to maximize your energy levels when you exercise. Without the right food, you’re more likely to feel fatigued and sluggish. In fact, evidence suggests that proper nutrition supports your physical activity.

Plus, as the saying goes, food is fuel. According to Forbes, your diet impacts your productivity and work output levels. Eating too much or consuming the wrong foods during a workday can seriously impair your productivity

A healthy diet doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. According to the World Health Organization, it simply means eating plenty of vegetables and fruit, consuming less fat, and limiting the intake of salty and sugary foods. So in real life that may mean more plant protein and less animal fats or choosing fresh fruit over cookies.

Preparing nutritious meals at home

Ever been so consumed by your work that you forget to eat lunch and suddenly it’s 5 p.m.? It’s something I used to do frequently as a young freelancer. I would crash and burn by early evening and wonder why. Spoiler alert: It was the lack of food!

We all know we should try to make better food choices. As we mentioned earlier, healthy eating also impacts our productivity at work. I often find that on the days I try to fuel myself with coffee and junk food alone, my energy spikes only briefly before taking a sharp nosedive. But if I eat a simple (sometimes boring) home-cooked lunch, I feel much more creative at work.

It’s not just about productivity and creativity, of course. Harvard Medical School shared that, “A growing body of scientific evidence supports teaching patients how to cook meals at home as an effective medical intervention for improving diet quality, weight loss, and diabetes prevention.”

Like our workouts, taking a little bit of time to plan ahead and prepare simple, healthy, and balanced meals for ourselves can be hugely beneficial.

Hydration is key

Similar to forgetting to eat lunch, I used to often go a whole day without drinking water during my workday. At the end of the day, I’d have headaches and feel exhausted. It took me a long time to understand this was a result of being dehydrated. Research has shown that even mild dehydration (a body water loss of between 1% and 2%) impairs cognitive performance. Severe cases of dehydration can cause dizziness, confusion, and even seizures.

Water needs can vary from person to person. The Institute of Medicine recommends from 6 to 13 glasses of water a day, depending on your gender, age, and level of activity.

These days my “emotional support water bottle” (as my husband likes to refer to it) never leaves my side. I have regular alarms set up to remind me to drink water during the workday. Silly as that sounds, it really works!

Creating a healthy workspace

When you work from home once in a while, it’s easy to make do by sitting at the kitchen table or on the couch. But when it becomes the norm, your back and neck will quickly let you know that “making do” won’t cut it. In fact, for a lot of people, their health issues (hello, neck and back pain) can often arise due to their poor posture or lack of movement during the workday.

An effective workspace goes beyond just setting up a desk and a computer. Whether your home office is your kitchen table, a desk, or even a coworking space—set yourself up to emphasize physical comfort and health. It will pay dividends in improved wellbeing and productivity.

Investing in ergonomic furniture

You may love working from the couch or in bed, but holding your body in an awkward posture for long periods of time can lead to health issues including carpal tunnel syndrome, frequent headaches, and chronic neck and back pain. Just as you need the right tools to deliver quality work, your body also needs the right tools to remain healthy enough to continue working.

In short, invest in ergonomic furniture and tools for your workspace. These office ergonomic tips from the Mayo Clinic explain how:

  • Chair. Adjust the height so your feet rest flat on the floor, or use a footrest so that your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Desk. Make sure there’s enough room for your legs and feet under the desk. If the desk is too low, put sturdy boards or blocks under the desk legs to raise it. If the desk is too high and can't be changed, raise your chair.
  • Keyboard and mouse. Move your keyboard so your wrists align with your shoulders. Adjust your chair or desk so that your hands are at or slightly below the level of your elbows.
  • Monitor. Place the computer monitor straight in front of you, directly behind your keyboard, about an arm's length away from your face.
  • Laptop. Use an external keyboard and mouse, along with a laptop stand, box, or stack of books, to move the monitor up to the ideal height
  • Phone. Use a headset or put the phone on speaker.

No matter how ergonomic your furniture is, be sure to get up and move throughout the day. As we discussed above, sitting in the same position for long periods of time is never good for the body.

Taking care of your eyes

Taking breaks throughout the day allows your brain to get a little rest and your body to release some of the stress that builds up throughout the workday. Too often, people burn out. They hit a wall, with physical and mental health breakdowns, only then realizing that it’s time to deal with the lack of balance in their lives.

Long hours on screens can cause eye strain, fatigue, and headaches. The American Academy of Ophthalmology shares eye ergonomics tips including staying at arm’s length from your monitor, reducing the glare from screens, adjusting lighting, and most importantly, taking breaks. Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Take a break every 20 minutes by looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Looking into the distance allows your eyes to relax.

Understand that a break isn’t checking your social media feed or shopping online. To truly benefit from your breaks, step away from your screen.  Taken regularly, breaks can improve your mood, increase your creativity, and lift your energy levels.

Mental health matters, too

Freelancing can be very isolating. A lack of social interaction can be damaging for our mental health. Regular human interaction and building social connections can help us combat isolation, reduce stress, and prevent burning out.

Making room to socialize

Don’t get so caught up in work that you forget to socialize with other humans. If you have kids at home, take a break and spend time with them. Catch up with friends after work. Schedule a FaceTime call with a family member who lives far away.

Work can be social too. Let your colleagues see your more personal side. They’re in the same remote-work boat as you. Make time to connect with your coworkers about things completely unrelated to work. Figure out how much interaction you need to feel connected. Use messages, video calls, or other socialization opportunities to interact with your colleagues.

Tired of humans? Pets can be fantastic stress busters for remote workers. Their furry presence can be calming on tough workdays. Schedule pet breaks into your workday to simply be with your animals. Whether you play with them or coo over them in the special language all pet owners are experts in—it all helps!

Pursuing nonwork interests

More than half of the respondents to a major U.S. study reported feeling burned out. Burnout manifests itself in feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion, combined with a sense of hopelessness.

One way to prevent burnout is by doing more than just work. Your productivity at work isn’t just about how long you stay at your desk. Pursue other interests outside of work. This could mean taking up a sport, finding a new hobby, or joining a club. These interests bring balance to your life and are good for your overall well-being.

Physical activity also has many well-established mental health benefits. So whether you’re playing a sport, or gardening, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the benefits of physical activity “include improved brain health and cognitive function (the ability to think, if you will), a reduced risk of anxiety and depression, and improved sleep and overall quality of life.”

With little time on my hands these days, my non-work activity of choice is reading. Similar to practicing meditation and mindfulness, reading enhances your ability to focus and be present. But, if your eyes need a break, I get it. For people who stare at a computer all day, listening to audiobooks or podcasts can provide many of the same benefits without adding more eye strain.

Whether you read fiction or nonfiction, reading can be beneficial on the workfront in more ways than one. A growing body of research indicates that reading strengthens your brain. It can also improve your ability to empathize, enhance your vocabulary, and reduce stress.

Prioritizing sleep

Sleep deprivation is a form of psychological torture and as a new parent, I can report that is certainly how it feels. Sleep also supports numerous other aspects of cognition, including memory, problem-solving, creativity, emotional processing, and judgment.

From personal experience, I can also report that it can worsen anxiety. Not getting enough sleep can also lead to being less physically active during the day and reduced muscle strength during workouts.

The obvious conclusion? Sleep (and the lack of it) can deeply affect both our physical and mental health. So, if improving your health and well-being is the goal, resist the urge to skimp on sleep. In fact, make a conscious effort to prioritize it.

Ultimately, it comes down to knowing yourself and what your body and mind need to heal. Don’t work to the point of burnout. Prioritizing your mental health, sleep and self-care can reduce chronic stress, improve job satisfaction and reduce burnout, according to Verywell Health. This self-care, ultimately, makes you a better, more productive worker.

How to stay active while working from home

At this point, you get it. Movement matters. Yet, combating a sedentary lifestyle can feel challenging. The good news is it’s not just about exercise. Your daily habits count too. In fact, habits that help you integrate movement into your remote workday are actually great for you.

Verywell Fit reports, “A large portion of the energy burned through the day comes from a type of activity called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). This type of movement accounts for all non-planned or intentional exercise. It includes any kind of walking, fidgeting, or other calorie-burning activities that are a byproduct of your daily activities.”

For those of us who work full time from home—how do you actually do this? Here are a few tips.

Regularly change your working position

We already know that sitting for long periods is not good for us. The solution is simple. Stand more.

Invest in a standing desk if possible. Many of these are adjustable, allowing you to alternate between sitting and standing. Healthline reports a number of benefits of standing desks, including but not limited to lower back pain, less stress and fatigue,and burning more calories.

No budget for a standing desk? Stand at your kitchen counter like I do. I prop my laptop up on a stack of books. It helps me change up my work environment and comes with the added bonus of being closer to snacks. Just kidding!

Incorporating physical activities into breaks

Make the most of your breaks. Instead of doomscrolling through social media or news sites, make your breaks physical. Break up the workday by taking short breaks when you do a few squats or lunges. I sometimes set myself a target (say 50), and challenge myself to do 10 squats every hour. Doing a few light stretches on your yoga mat or getting your heart rate up with some jumping jacks also works just as well.

One study shows that even short, three-minute movement breaks when taken every 30 minutes can combat the effects of sitting, including more stable blood sugar levels, reduced “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels, and improved fasting glucose.

As boring as this sounds, physical chores can also help. I often take a midmorning break to hang out my laundry. It forces me to get up and go outdoors into my backyard. As I hang out my son’s tiny t-shirts and pants, I try to do a few stretches and also breathe in the fresh air and listen to bird sounds.

And if you don’t feel like any of the other things, just go for a walk outdoors. A short 10-minute walk can help you more than you realize!

Use technology to your advantage

Do you ever get so “in the zone” with work that you forget to get up? Suddenly it’s three hours later and you’re in the exact same hunched position that you were in when your day started. Oops. Been there, done that, many times over.

Technology can help. Fitness apps and wearables can get you moving and even make it competitive, in a fun way. Set up reminders and just move when it goes off.

I wear a smartwatch that sends me a “Move” reminder every hour. When it buzzes, I get up and move. I’ve made this nonnegotiable. I also use it to track my physical activity like steps and floors climbed. I really enjoy the challenge of meeting my daily goals!

Make your daily routine more active

It doesn’t all have to happen during your workday, of course. Can you make physical activities a part of your daily routine outside of work as well? For example, could you walk or cycle to the store instead of driving?

I love my morning coffee and while I could drive to a local cafe, I often choose to walk there instead. The promise of a great coffee motivates me to get outdoors and go for a 30-minute walk. Sometimes I’m so tired when I head out but by the time I come back, I always feel so much better, and it’s not just because of the coffee!

My husband rides his bike to the office every day. Some days it’s the only exercise he can fit into the day and riding a few miles daily helps him feel less sluggish at work.

So the question to ask is: How can you make your day-to-day more active?

Staying fit while working and traveling

It’s all well and good to create healthy habits when you’re working from home, but what if you’re a freelancer who likes to travel digital nomad style? From lived personal experience, I can tell you a fitness routine on the go is definitely possible as well. With a bit of creativity and flexibility, you can ensure your health doesn't take a back seat during your travels.

Here are some tips to help you get started. I’ll share a bit of my own experience to show you what’s possible.

Planning ahead for fitness

If staying fit and healthy is a priority for you while traveling, all it takes is a bit of planning, research, and preparedness.

Whether you plan to be away for a few days or a few months, look into your fitness options at your destination. You may like to use the hotel gym, go for runs around the city, or sign up for local fitness classes. You can also travel with some basic fitness gear if you choose and baggage space allows. What you choose to do will depend on your personal situation and preferences of course.

I used to travel with a set of resistance bands for many years. They were light and helped me exercise in Airbnbs, hotel rooms, parks, and beaches around the world. If we lived somewhere longer than a few weeks, my husband and I almost always researched and signed up to local gyms.

I also tried to find local fitness options wherever we went. In Colombia, I joined the free salsa lessons that took place every Sunday near my apartment. When I lived in Mexico, we used the public bike network every day. In Thailand, I went to yoga classes and while I didn’t understand the instructions in Thai, I was able to follow the demonstrations. I also walked most places while traveling instead of taking Ubers.

It took a bit of extra effort, but staying healthy even while traveling mattered to me, so I tried to plan ahead and also make it a fun part of my travel and living abroad experience.

Maximizing opportunities for physical activity

Have you ever found that you walk so much more when you’re traveling? I remember racking up 28,000 steps in one day when we visited New York City because we walked almost everywhere!

Staying fit while traveling doesn’t just mean hitting the hotel gym. You can incorporate physical activities into your travel days. Explore cities by foot when you can. Joining a walking tour is a fun way to do this. In Barcelona, my husband and I rented bikes and explored the city by bike, which was super fun.

Another simple swap can be opting to take the stairs instead of elevators. If you’re traveling for work, can you walk to your meetings instead of taking an Uber?  

Eating healthy while traveling

Eating healthy can also feel like a challenge while you’re traveling. I’m a massive foodie, so trying to make healthy choices while also making sure I try all the local delicacies can be a battle! But I know that eating some fruit and drinking a lot of water daily—even while consuming tacos for all meals—leaves me feeling a lot better.

My husband and I usually try to stay in accommodations with a kitchen, or kitchenette at the very least. This way, we can make a healthy breakfast at “home” before we head out for the day. This also means if we don’t feel like eating out every single night, we can make a simple meal at home.

You can also eat out and make healthier choices if you prefer. Order a salad or a side of veggies. Choose to drink water instead of alcohol during some of your meals. Track down the local supermarket and stock up on fruit and healthy snacks to have on the go.

Adapting and being flexible with your routine

Your fitness routine while traveling may look different to what it looks like at home. That’s OK. Don’t get so caught up in it that you forget to enjoy your travels. Be flexible and do what you can.

If you’re struggling to find equipment, for example, you can always look up equipment-free workouts on YouTube that you can do anywhere. Don’t feel comfortable running outdoors at your destination? Maybe a treadmill run at the hotel gym may be better.

Adapt your routine as necessary. Most importantly, remember that movement is all that matters. You may not get a workout in but if you managed to spend all day sightseeing by foot, you made a great choice for your health.

But also, if you do absolutely nothing and lie by the pool on your vacation—that’s OK too. Remember, breaks from your routine (and from the screen) are just as important for your health.

Embrace a healthier freelance lifestyle

Getting fit and leading a healthy lifestyle is often about making a conscious choice to do so. Make your health a priority. Start with something as simple as a daily walk or making the time to meditate. Set a timer to remind yourself to get up from your desk for a few minutes every hour.

Do whatever you need to do to suit your individual health needs, but actually do it. Don’t just think about it for the future. Eat healthy meals. Get enough sleep. Take a mental health day every once in a while. Don’t be afraid to take a sick day when you’re feeling rough. The pandemic has taught us that going to a shared workspace with a cough, cold, or fever is exactly the wrong thing to do to support our coworkers. Even if you don’t mix face-to-face with coworkers, trying to work when you’re run-down can result in low productivity or make a recovery take longer.

When you’re busy, it’s easy to deprioritize your own self-care and health. But if you find yourself going too many days without taking care of your health, stop and make self-care a priority again. Being healthy will help you show up better at work and in your personal life.

Yes, freelancing can be a sedentary lifestyle. But so can working a full-time corporate job. The biggest advantage of freelancing is that it allows you the flexibility to build your own work-from-home routine. Work-life balance is in your control. So, if you want to make changes, get fitter, make room for self-care, and build healthier habits, a flexible freelance routine can actually help you achieve this sooner.

Not a freelancer yet? Learn how to transition to freelancing from a full-time job. Freelancing allows you to create flexibility in your life and prioritize the people and things that matter most to you.  Sign up for a freelancer account on Upwork to get started.

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Author Spotlight

Stay Fit While Freelancing: Health Tips for Remote Work
Radhika Basuthakur
Content Writer

Radhika is a self-confessed word nerd and content expert with over 15 years of experience writing content for businesses around the world. She is a cheerleader for flexible work, a passionate world traveler, and spends her free time alternating between a good book and a good hike.

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