Don’t Have Time For A Big Workout? Try ‘Exercise Snacking’

After a long day at work, the last thing you may want to do is a hard workout. Even thinking about it can be exhausting, especially when you’re trying to balance that with dinner, spending time with family and friends and other things on your to-do list. How can you possibly do it all?

That’s where “exercise snacking” comes in. Instead of doing one big workout a day, it encourages you to get in some movement throughout the day in shorter bursts.

The goal is to move your body in a way that feels good or productive to you. Exercise snacking can be as informal or formal as you’d like. On the informal side, it might look like walking your dog, stretching your legs, doing jumping jacks while watching TV, taking the stairs or using a resistance band while you’re at work.

“You are able to do these without it really impacting the time in your day,” said Joslyn Thompson-Rule, a Peloton instructor.

Even a small amount of exercise can improve your health.

Exercise snacking is not only easier to fit into a busy schedule, but it’s beneficial for your health, too.

According to a 2019 study in Journal of Aging Research, exercise snacking can improve leg muscle function and size. And even climbing the stairs for a few minutes throughout the day can improve cardiovascular health, according to research at McMaster University and UBC Okanagan.

Exercise snacking can improve your daily living, too. It “gives you energy bursts” and “improves sleep performance,” said Georgy Dillon, a pre- and postnatal personal trainer who uploads exercise snack videos. So, it can help you fight that afternoon slump you may feel after lunch.

“Of course this is great for cardiovascular health, but the big thing for me is the positive impact it has on mental health, too,” Thompson-Rule said. If you feel down, unmotivated or unable to focus, fitting in an exercise snack can change that. According to Dillon, it improves clarity, elevates your mood and just generally benefits your mental well-being.

Since it’s usually easier to fit this type of exercise in, it can also help you feel more accomplished, like you’re able to meet your goals. “[It’s] rewarding and gives you a sense of achievement,” Dillon added.

Exercising in small bursts can be easier and more accessible — and it has health benefits.

Maskot via Getty Images

Exercising in small bursts can be easier and more accessible — and it has health benefits.

It’s a more accessible option for people who find exercise triggering or physically difficult.

For people who have had an exercise addiction, knowing what a “healthy” workout looks like and stopping when necessary can be difficult. Exercise snacking is purposefully short, which can be less triggering and feel more natural than a trip to the gym.

“For those who have a condition or find working out more difficult, practicing the appropriate small exercise snacks means that they aren’t putting themselves under too much pressure too soon,” Dillon said.

For people with a chronic illness, such as back pain or a heart issue, exercise isn’t always an option — especially for a long stretch of time. Talking to your doctor is best (preferably one who’s well-versed in Health at Every Size, a holistic framework that promotes health equity), but according to the Cleveland Clinic, low-impact exercises such as walking or resistance bands for a short period can be the “snack” to choose. But again, ask your physician first (and listen to your body), as more exercise can make things worse for people with chronic fatigue syndrome, for example.

Here’s how to create your own “exercise snack.”

So think about what you want exercise snacks to look like for you. What fits into your day best and is most doable?

“There are no hard and fast rules — again, we are trying to move away from the idea that you have to move for a certain period of time for it to ‘count,’” Thompson-Rule said.

But if you need some more formal ideas to get you started, one option Dillon suggested is an interval workout. “Choose four exercises and set an interval timer to do 30 seconds of exercise, 20 seconds of rest and repeat for the exercise snack time, [such as] eight minutes,” she said.

Those exercises could be pushups, situps, squats, planks, lunges or whatever you find most enjoyable. (Remember: If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t want to do it, and creating a habit will be harder. Plus, you deserve to enjoy it. Exercise doesn’t have to be something you dread!)

Thompson-Rule agreed. “With that in mind, meeting yourself where you are at with both time and movement means you get to do what works for you,” she said.

Ultimately, exercise snacking is a whole new (and maybe even better) way to look at exercise. “It moves us away from the idea that you have to work out for a certain amount of time for it to be effective,” Thompson-Rule added. “Working out is so different for everyone.”

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