Maybe you’ve set a New Year’s resolution to get fitter and healthier this year. If so, you’re in good company: statistics show that improving fitness is the number one resolution. Unfortunately, the majority of people find sticking to that resolution difficult. A year on, only about 9% report they’ve stayed with a new exercise regimen for the entire 12 months.
Making exercise a consistent, regular habit is hard, especially when you’re juggling a career, family obligations, and other demands on your time. A good starting point—or simply a good way to add on to an existing exercise habit—is to integrate movement “snacks” into your routine. These short bursts of activity scattered throughout your day can make a difference in how you feel, as well as your overall health.
“Movement is good for us, even if it’s not a dedicated exercise session,” says Meghan Wieser, a doctor of physical therapy at Maryland-based Recharge Health & Fitness. “Movement snacks can be a low-barrier way to get your body moving throughout the day, and it correlates with better health markers.”
Research backs this up. A team at McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario, tested the theory. The study looked into whether simple 20-second bursts of vigorous stair climbing, three times each day, performed three days a week, could improve cardiorespiratory fitness. After six weeks, it had, by about 5%. “The changes are modest, but not insignificant,” says co-author Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology. “By studying epidemiological data, we’ve learned that small changes can go a long way.”
While repeated exercise snacks shouldn’t replace a more regular workout routine that includes both cardiovascular and strength training, it can improve your health. It can also serve as an easy entry point to getting fitter in the new year.
How to get started
One of the best ways to incorporate movement snacks into your day is to “habit stack,” says Wieser. “In a given day, you already have habits built in, like a mid-morning coffee break,” she says. “So while you’re waiting for the coffee to brew, fit in some movement.”
Maybe you have a daily 2 p.m. zoom call with your team, for instance. Five minutes before it begins, take the chance to do a micro-session of exercise. The same with getting up from your desk to walk to the bathroom. You can also choose to Pomodoro Method your way to better health by setting a timer to remind you to move after a specific interval of time. Or if you wear a fitness tracker, set it to buzz every couple of hours as a friendly nudge to move. The point is getting intentional about movement, and stacking it on top of existing routines and habits makes it easier to remember and incorporate.
How you move and for how long can run a wide spectrum, and is dependent on your existing baseline of fitness. Someone who is fully sedentary, for instance, probably won’t start with sprinting up the stairs for 20 seconds at a time. Aim for a variety of movement that benefits both your heart and lungs, as well as your muscles.
Easy entry points can include movements like air squats, lunges, push-ups, jogging in place, doing a few sets of jumping jacks, or setting out for a vigorous walk down the hall. If you prefer more static movement, hold a wall sit for 30 seconds at a time, repeating three times,. Or get on the floor and hold a plank for a similar period of time. Try to mix it up to give your body a variety of stimuluses, and aim to move at least every two hours or so.
“No one type of exercise is better than any other, but you should aim to engage your large muscle groups to get your heart rate elevated at the same time,” says Gibala. “Complex, multi-joint functional movements, with or without equipment are good. You need to huff and puff a bit to get the benefit.”
And that’s one of the keys with shorter bursts of activity—some should be intense enough to raise your heart rate. “But it should be something you like so that you’ll stick with it,” says Gibala. “Burpees are fantastic, for example, but not everyone likes them.”
You don’t have to limit your movement snacks to the workday, or strictly with a plan in mind, either. Research shows that incorporating vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) into everyday life can be impactful as well. Even at a frequency of three times per day, lasting one or two minutes each is associated with reduced cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality. “Think about getting off a three-hour flight, where you’ve been sitting the whole time, and walking up the stairs in the airport with your suitcase in hand,” says Gibala. “Play hard with your kids for a few minutes. Parallel this with movement snacks and it can go a long way.”
All that says, your goal should still be longer, intentional exercise sessions. But as an add on—or if time for an exercise snack is all you’ve got—you can improve your health. “Consider snacks a supplement,” says Wieser. “It’s a little nibble throughout your day that feeds your body.”