Quick bursts of exercise “snacks” during the day can improve fitness

Activity snacks require no gym membership, special shoes or other equipment, and a minimal time commitment

To avoid the dangers of prolonged sitting, try “snack” exercise, which can be any activity that gets you up and moving throughout the day. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)


Here’s a simple and effective way to add physical activity to your daily routine during the new year: turn exercise into a snack.

New research shows exercise “snacks,” which include short spurts of exertion spread throughout the day, can improve metabolic health, increase endurance and stave off some of the undesirable changes in our muscles that are used when we sit too long.

“It’s a very practical approach” to physical activity, said Daniel Moore, a professor of muscle physiology at the University of Toronto in Canada, who led the 2022 study on exercise snacking and muscle health.

The physiological benefits of activity snacks can rival those of a brisk walking session or other traditional exercise, according to science. And they come in different flavors, from climbing stairs to unobtrusive chair squats in the office. Such “snacks” do not require a gym membership, special shoes or other equipment; office attire is optional but okay, and the time commitment is minimal.

But to get the most out of exercise snacking, it helps to know where, when and why you should fit in your snacktivity breaks.

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Sports snacks can improve metabolic health, improve endurance and leg strength, and benefit cardiorespiratory health. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

By definition, a workout snack is a brief piece of exercise, usually lasting a minute or two and often done during the day. It represents a “feasible, well-tolerated, and time-efficient approach” to exercise, according to a 2022 review of exercise snacking research.

Small portion sizes, sports snacks, cumulatively, can be quite powerful.

In a 2019 study, healthy university students exercised by quickly walking up and down three steps, three times a day – in the morning, at lunch and in the evening – almost every day for six weeks.

They are not used out. But after six weeks, he gained significant aerobic fitness and leg strength.

In addition, when some exercise researchers asked people either to ride a stationary bike in the lab for one, 10-minute intense interval training session or pop into the lab every few hours and pedal hard for about a minute’s worth of intervals, the group’s results in fitness almost comparable after six weeks.

Snacking in sports has been as effective as longer and more traditional workouts.

Exercise snacks usually last one to two minutes and occur often, preferably every half hour, if possible. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Snacking exercise can solve the problem of sitting

Exercising snacks can be uniquely effective in counteracting the disease of over-sitting.

Multiple studies have reinforced the idea that we should sit less. In a famous 2008 study, people who sat for hours had higher levels of blood sugar and cholesterol problems than people who got up and moved around a lot, no matter how much exercise volunteers did.

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More recently, researchers have found that the disadvantages of prolonged sitting for metabolic health can be so severe that they almost cancel out the health benefits of daily exercise.

How sitting all day can cause health problems – even if you exercise

But taking exercise snack breaks can cut down on sitting time. Moore highlighted this idea in a 2022 study he led, in which 12 healthy young people sat all day, with almost no interruptions, except for bathroom breaks, while he and his colleagues monitored how the muscles used protein from the diet.

Past studies have established that prolonged inactivity is hard on the muscles. In a 2019 study, young people who reduced their normal daily steps for a week and sat down quickly reduced their muscles’ ability to absorb and use amino acids, the building blocks of protein, from the bloodstream.

Without enough amino acids, muscles cannot repair and build effectively.

In Moore’s study, a day of nonstop sitting made leg muscles less adept at absorbing amino acids, according to a molecular tracer added to the protein powder they consumed.

But when the same volunteer recently sat down in the following days by walking for two minutes every half an hour or doing brief chair squats – get up from the chair, go up on tiptoes to activate many leg muscles, go down again. jog and repeat the move 15 times – The muscles are better able to absorb and incorporate amino acids from the bloodstreams than when they are sitting.

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This finding is “significant,” said Brian Carson, a sports scientist at the University of Limerick, who studies sports snacks but was not part of this research, because it shows that snacking can reverse some of the weaknesses of sitting and also running and squatting works just as well as snacks.

“It adds a suite of options for people” who can enjoy a snack in training, he said.

Office squats or jumping jacks?

To try your own snacking exercise this year, first think about which snacks work best for your schedule and tastes. Rock climbing? A two-minute corridor jaunt? Fifteen squat chairs? Maybe a dozen jumping jacks with your office door closed?

“Almost any activity that gets you up and moving” can be a workout snack, Moore says. Ideally, the activity should raise the heart rate and breathing quickly, last a minute or two, and occur often, preferably every half an hour, if possible. Snack instead of or in addition to your usual exercise, he adds, depending on how busy or inspired you are.

So, by 2023, maybe we’ll all have to decide to jump indoors more, climb up the living room or squat in the back of the plane during long flights.

“What’s great about sports snacks,” says Moore, “is that it doesn’t matter what you eat or where you are.” Almost anywhere and anytime can be good for snacking.

Do you have a fitness question? Email [email protected] and we can answer your questions in the next column.

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