When looking for ways to get fitter and feel better, we often dive into long workout routines that are difficult to maintain in our busy lives. But, thankfully, hour-long spin classes and lengthy yoga sessions aren’t the only way to get fit. Instead, you could try ‘exercise snacking’.
No, this is not about dashing to the biscuit tin mid-squat. Instead, the term refers to bite-sized workouts that you can scatter throughout your day to satisfy your body just as much as one long exercise session.
It’s scientifically sound, too; an Australian study from 2022 found that one-minute bursts of intense activity performed three or four times a day can boost overall health to reduce the risk of premature death by up to 49%.
So, if you want to start a fitness routine for summer, or need a boost of fresh motivation, ‘snacktivity’ could be the workout trend for you.
What is snacktivity?
One of the biggest research projects on exercise snacks is being undertaken by Loughborough University. The team devised a programme called Snacktivity, aimed at getting the sedentary population moving more. The goal is still to hit the NHS-backed guidelines of 30 minutes of moving a day, but rather than setting aside a formal half-hour on an exercise mat, you accumulate moving minutes over the day. Ideally, Snacktivity is done in intervals of two to five minutes of activity, with the suggestion that we ‘piggyback’ workout habits on to things we already do. Getting up to boil the kettle? Do squats while you wait. Brushing your teeth? Start doing lunges. Phone call with your kids? Take it while walking around the block.
The biggest advantage is that exercise snacks increase how much activity you do. Most of us don’t move enough, with time being one of the biggest barriers to hitting our exercise goals. When we’re juggling children, parents, friends, and work, fitness can fall by the wayside.
So rather than seeing exercise as a daunting block of time, Snacktivity gives a ‘whole-day’ approach. "Behaviour change and habit formation are best achieved through the gradual building of task self-efficacy, celebrating small successes," say the Loughborough researchers.
But how big of a physical benefit can you actually get from a short burst of exercise? "Studies are showing that exercise snacking has the same, if not greater health benefits than a 30- to 60-minute workout," says personal trainer Lavina Mehta MBE. For instance, a 2019 study found that inactive adults who completed three 20-second bouts of sprint cycling had the same improvements to their cardiovascular fitness as those who completed the workout in 10 minutes, suggesting that spreading your training throughout the day is just as good for your heart.
Another paper found that there was no difference between exercise completed all in one go versus movement accumulated throughout the day on our fitness levels, blood pressure, insulin and glucose levels, and that accumulated movement may even be better for improving body weight and cholesterol.
"Exercise snacks are also great at helping control blood sugar and blood fat levels, even reducing them by up to 40 per cent," says Mehta. "In particular, a short walk after eating can help reduce the glucose spike of food."
Of course, longer workouts are great for us, particularly as they are more likely to push your muscles, which helps build strength. But, according to a Bath University study, adults can still get strong with shorter bursts, too. The research found that doing two five-minute exercise snacks a day was enough to improve muscle mass and power in the over-70s. Personal trainer Lucinda Newman-Jones says exercise snacking can be beneficial for mid- to later-life women for this reason: "You might find that your body isn’t adapting and responding as quickly to the demands of exercise as it did when it was younger, which is why a ‘little and often’ approach can be beneficial to maintain and build strength without overwhelming the body," she says. "While exercise can help ease peri- and post-menopausal symptoms, long or hard workout sessions can increase stress during what is already an overwhelming time, so exercise snacks can be a low-stress alternative."
If you already have a great workout routine, you can exercise-snack alongside your regular training. "On sedentary days, when you’re swamped with work or life admin, they can help to blow the cobwebs off," Newman-Jones says. "I also like doing them as a short, mindful way to mobilise and connect to the body to help reduce tensions, stresses, and strains we feel throughout the day."
How do you do it?
As you can probably tell, there’s no one way to snack on exercise. "Anything counts, but it’s good to incorporate all styles of movement, including cardio, strength, and stretching for a holistic approach to movement," says Mehta.
As stated in the Snacktivity guidelines, we should still be working towards the ‘30 moving minutes a day’ goal, which can be broken up however you see fit: six five-minute sessions, three 10-minute workouts, or mixing and matching. The key is that the snacks need to be purposeful—aim for at least a moderate intensity. "You want the heart rate to be raised but you should still be able to talk if you were exercising with a friend," Mehta explains. Read on for some activities you can easily munch on…
Walk a stop
Getting off the train or bus a stop earlier can have a significant effect on your health. According to a University of Cambridge study published earlier this year, just 11 minutes of brisk walking a day is enough to reduce the risk of early death by 23 per cent, cardiovascular disease by 17 per cent, and cancer by 7 per cent. Weave this into your day by walking to places you’re already going, whether that’s to the supermarket or the office. If those are too far away for a quick snack, then try the walk-a-stop concept, getting off the train or bus a stop early or parking your car somewhere a little further away. Up the ante by running for that stretch—just make sure you’re wearing appropriate trainers.
If you’re breaking up your day with a walk around the block, try plugging into a guided meditation that will support your mental as well as physical health. The mindfulness app Headspace has collections of three- to 10-minute walking tracks designed to be listened to in nature, the city or at home.
Stretch it out
"A yoga sequence is a good exercise snack for those who’ve been sitting at a desk," says Newman-Jones. "Incorporate flows and poses that release stiffness and tightness in areas that hold a lot of tension, such as the shoulders, back, hips and hamstrings." Try the speedy sun salutation any time you feel tight, to open up those muscle groups. The five-minute yoga app does what it says on the tin: short stretch sequences perfect for snacking on.
Step 1: Begin in a downward-facing dog position with your feet and hands on the floor, hips pushed up towards the sky. It’s okay if your heels come off the floor to make the stretch easier.
Step 2: Roll forwards so your shoulders come over your wrists into a plank position. Lower your knees if you need to as you lower your stomach to the floor.
Step 3: Roll your shoulders back and down, and squeeze your glutes as you lift your chest, stomach and hips off the floor into upward facing dog.
Step 4: Press your hips up to the sky to move back into downward facing dog.
A simple strength workout can be done any time: before your morning shower, or before you start supper. "Work through each exercise at a confident pace, trying to mindfully connect to the muscles," Newman-Jones advises. She recommends choosing between four to eight of the following exercises, doing each one for 10-15 repetitions or around 30 seconds.
From standing, step one foot back and bend your knees to lower to the floor. Press front foot down to lift back up to standing and repeat the other side.
Start with your arms bent at 90 degrees, elbows in line with your shoulders, then press them straight overhead (this one is even better if you hold dumbbells).
From standing, lower your hips towards the floor, squeezing your core and glutes as you do so. Press through your heels to come back to standing.
Begin standing or sitting, then raise your heels off the floor on to your tiptoes (for extra depth, stand on the edge of a stair or step).
Sitting on the floor, reach your arms forward and pull them back as though rowing a boat. If you can, hold a resistance band hooked around your feet.
From an all fours position, draw your belly button to your spine, then slowly raise one arm and the opposite leg off the floor and out straight. Lower and repeat on the other side.
Lie on the floor with your feet flat and knees bent to the ceiling. Push your pubic bone up and peel your hips off the floor, then lower down.
Sit on the edge of a chair with your hands on either side of you. Lift your hips off the edge and bend your elbows to lower your body down, then push back up.
Come into the starting position of a press-up with your hands underneath your shoulders and your legs extended back. Hold.
Place your hands on the floor and extend your legs back (knees on the floor if you need to). Bend your elbows at 45 degrees to lower your chest down then press back up.
This article first appeared in Good Housekeeping.