Maybe you’re making a New Year’s resolution to be fitter and healthier this year. If so, you’re in good company. Statistics show that improving fitness is the best solution. Unfortunately, most people find it difficult to stick to their resolutions. After one year, only about 9% reported sticking with their new exercise regimen for a full 12 months.
Making exercise a consistent, regular habit can be difficult, especially when you’re juggling career, family obligations, and other demands on your time. A good starting point, or a good way to add more to your existing exercise routine, is to incorporate movement “snacks” into your routine. These short bursts of activity, interspersed throughout the day, can make a difference in your mood and overall health.
“Movement is good for us, even if it’s not a dedicated exercise session,” says Megan Wieser, a physical therapist at Maryland-based Recharge Health & Fitness. “Exercise snacks are a low-impact way to get your body moving throughout the day and are correlated with improved health indicators.”
Research supports this. A team from McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario put this theory to the test. This study investigated whether simply walking up the stairs vigorously for 20 seconds three times a day, three days a week, could improve cardiovascular fitness. After 6 weeks, it had decreased by about 5%. “The changes are modest, but not insignificant,” says co-author Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology. “By studying epidemiological data, we have found that small changes can have big effects.”
Repeating exercise snacks is not a replacement for a more regular workout routine that includes both cardiovascular and strength training, but it may improve your health. It also serves as an easy entry point to becoming healthier in the new year.
how to start
One of the best ways to incorporate physical snacks into your day is to “build your habits,” says Wieser. “Habits are already built into the day, like a mid-morning coffee break,” she says. “Let’s get some exercise while we wait for the coffee to brew.”
For example, let’s say you have a daily Zoom call with your team at 2pm. Give yourself an opportunity to do a micro-session of exercise 5 minutes before you start. The same goes for getting up from your desk to go to the bathroom. You can also choose his Pomodoro method to improve your health by setting a timer to exercise after a certain amount of time. Or, if you wear a fitness tracker, set it to beep every few hours as a gentle reminder to move. The key is to be intentional with your movements, and layering them into your existing routines and habits will make them easier to remember and incorporate.
How you move and how long you can run depends on your current fitness baseline. For example, a person who is sedentary all the time will not start by sprinting up the stairs for 20 seconds at a time. Aim for a variety of movements that benefit both your heart, lungs, and muscles.
Easy entry points include air squats, lunges, push-ups, jogging in place, doing a few sets of jumping jacks, or taking a brisk walk down the hallway. If you prefer more static movements, keep him sitting on the wall for 30 seconds at a time and repeat this three times. Alternatively, stand on the floor and hold a plank for a similar amount of time. Mix it up to give your body a variety of stimulation and aim to move your body at least every two hours.
“No one type of exercise is better than another, but you should aim to get your heart rate up and work large muscle groups at the same time,” says Jibara. “Complex, multi-joint, functional movements are good, with or without equipment. You have to huff a little to get the benefit.”
And this is one of the keys to doing short bursts of activity. Some activities need to be intense enough to get your heart rate up. “But it has to be something you like in order to stick with it,” says Jibara. “For example, burpees are great, but not everyone likes burpees.”
Exercise snacking doesn’t have to be limited to work days or with a strict plan in mind. Research shows that incorporating vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) into daily life can have a similar impact. Even three times a day for 1 to 2 minutes each time is associated with reduced mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer. “Think about getting off a three-hour flight, sitting the whole time, and then carrying your suitcase up the airport stairs,” says Jibara. “Spend a few minutes playing hard with your kids. Do this alongside an exercise snack and you’ll see big benefits.”
However, the goal should still be longer, more deliberate exercise sessions. But as an addition to exercise or if you don’t have enough time for snacks, you can improve your health. “Think of snacks as supplements,” says Wieser. “Eating small amounts throughout the day will nourish your body.”