We’re sitting more and more these days. It’s no wonder, with the pandemic causing us to spend hours at home. As a result, people have seen their step counts decrease by up to 50%. But sitting and sedentary time have been increasing for years before that. And when you’re sitting at your desk or on your couch, the idea of getting some exercise, while good, may seem far away. But what if you could snack on exercise throughout the day and improve your health and fitness?

One of the biggest fitness trends is exercise snacking. Exercise snacking is the notion of breaking up your day with short bursts of exercise. Just like one may snack on food throughout the day. The ideal duration of the exercise snack isn’t known but we do know that any activity is better than no activity.

Exercise snacking isn’t new, although the research and the term are. If you’ve ever been sitting at your computer or watching TV and had the urge to stand up and walk around or stretch, you’ve had an exercise snack. This type of body and brain break is famous among many writers. Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code spends a minute every hour when writing doing push-ups and sit-ups. And why not, even short bursts of exercise can give you an energy boost and improve your productivity.

guidelines for exercise

Guidelines Beginning to Reflect Exercise Snacking

Thousands upon thousands of research papers tell us that exercise is good for us. Despite that, as little as 20% get enough activity. Many people say they just don’t have enough time, or can’t afford to go to a gym. And with the pandemic, many gyms are either closed or people are turning away from them.

In recent decades, the recommended minimal amount of exercise needed to be done at any one time has been decreasing. Guidelines when I was young stated you needed to get at least 30 minutes of exercise at least three times per week. Plus you needed to do this at 50% or more of your maximum heart rate. Over time, guidelines evolved to a minimum target of 150 minutes per week. And this could be accumulated through 10 minute chunks of activity.

The latest guidelines in the US, and the new guidelines by the WHO, no longer have a set minimum of activity at a given time. While the weekly target of at least 150 minutes remains, you can accumulate your time how you want to do it. This means as little as one minute, maybe less, counts towards your weekly targets.

scientist studying exercise snacking

Scientists Sink Their Teeth into Exercise Snacking

Exercise snacking has grown out of research on high intensity interval training (HIIT), repeated short bursts of high intensity exercise interspersed with active rest. Sandwiched between a warm-up and cool down, a full HIIT session may last 20-30 minutes. Much less than most moderate intensity exercise activities with similar benefits.

Scientists then asked whether these intervals could be spread out over the day. Turns out, they can. When three all-out bursts of 20 seconds of cycling were separated by at least one hour of rest, improvements in fitness were similar to those people who did the three bursts with only three minutes rest.

Now this doesn’t mean going to the gym for a minute several times per day or having your own home gym. Or even getting into spandex. The beauty of exercise snacks is that you don’t need any equipment. Even doing stairs counts. Climbing three flights of stairs, three times per day, three days per week for six weeks resulted in improvements in fitness in non-exercisers. This small amount of activity was enough to improve insulin metabolism in people who were overweight. This confirmed earlier research indicating two minutes of walking every 20 minutes reduces blood sugar.

exercise snack- burpees

Fitting in Your Snacks

What makes the exercise snack different from standing up and stretching or walking to the kitchen (this counts as NEAT activity), is increasing your heart rate. You should target an activity that gets you breathing faster and makes it hard to sing or whistle (if you’re so inclined to do so). But you don’t need to worry about sweating. Moving about for 1-2 minutes isn’t enough time for you to start sweating. This is great because you can do it in your everyday clothes.

Some activities you can try include stair climbing, jogging in place, jumping jacks and burpees. You can even do a brisk walk/jog around the block. If you have a stationary bike or rowing machine, just jump on that for a minute or so. If you want something of longer duration, there’s the Royal Canadian Air Force 11-minute workout plan. Developed in 1959, you can do this program at home without any equipment (although bending your knees during sit-ups is advisable). A modification of this program was recently studied indicating its effectiveness at improving fitness.

It’s still ideal to get in your regular meal of exercise as well as your snacks. But exercise snacks are a great way to build activity into your day and start the process of forming a habit.

If you’re like me and have a hard time remembering to get up every so often, technology is here to help. From a simple cooking timer, to the alarm on your phone, to watches that vibrate reminding you to get up. But perhaps the most effective may be using a screen time app on your computer, tablet or phone. Some of these apps lock out your device for a set period of time, giving you the impetus to get up and move.

So feel free to take as many exercise snacks throughout the day knowing you’re on track to keeping fit and healthy.

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