4 Ways Exercise ‘Snacks’ and Micro Workouts Get Big Results

I’ve been preaching the virtues of integrating small bouts of movement into everyday life for quite some time. But up until a few years ago, I was fighting against the tide. Most of the emphasis seemed to be on fitting into the schedule as many sweaty, “no pain-no gain” work-outs as you could -- and not thinking about how little your body was moving the rest of the time, i.e. most of the time. No more. These days, it’s all about “micro” work-outs, sometimes known as (I’m not kidding) exercise “snacking,” and it’s a great way to give your body and brain the TLC they need to function well all day, every day. So, if you’re ready to start ‘snacking,’ your way to a healthier you, here’s what you need to know:

Time for some exercise ‘snacks.’

Though the concept of micro workouts isn’t new, at last, it’s an idea that’s starting to get some traction. In 2018, the American public health authorities woke up to the fact that even small amounts of movement counted in the weekly minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise they were recommending. No longer was 30 minutes the magic duration that that you had to reach for it to be really, really good for you.

The fact is, the scientific evidence has been piling up, demonstrating that smaller amounts of movement can have a bigger effect than researchers had previously dreamed of. In a recent analysis of seven studies that looked at the health effect of micro amounts of physical activity, as little as a 2-5 minute walk after a meal had a measurable impact on blood sugar and insulin levels. And a recent study published in December 2022, showed that small amounts of vigorous nonexercise physical activity are associated with substantially lower mortality.

Short bursts are great for your metabolism.

Spicing up your day with movement breaks that (mildly) stress your muscles gives you a health bang for the buck in a somewhat different way. While you can’t approximate the fitness pay-off of a five-mile run simply with a couple of two-minute walks, you really can get stronger by spacing out some quick body-weight resistance exercises over the course of a day. The cumulative strength-building effect could turn out to be greater than a couple of weekly weight-lifting sessions at the gym. And keeping your muscles toned is essential to countering the muscle-wasting that occurs in old age when muscles are left unattended (sarcopenia). So, not only is maintaining your muscle mass good for your metabolism (muscle burns more glucose at rest than fat tissue), it’s essential for helping your body fend off frailty and preserve quality of life, for as long as possible (aka your ‘healthspan’). It could well determine whether your “golden years” are really so golden, as in, can you get in and out of a chair without assistance?

We’ve been moving since time began – keep at it!

Humans evolved to move. And when we do get regular physical activity – including sessions long, short and micro – closer to the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, the health pay-off is enormous. A mountain of studies has demonstrated that regular movement is associated with a lower risk of all the major diseases. And the more we move, the better we move. Aging has a tendency to turn us stiff and creaky. But when we stay active, our muscles stretch out, our connective tissue stays more supple and our joints retain more of their youthful range of motion.

The pay-off is really two-fold: the good things that happen when we’re moving and the bad things that aren’t happening when we break up the amount of time we spend immobile, usually in front of a screen. The research suggests that even people who work out regularly may pay a metabolic and musculoskeletal price when they’re frozen at the desk for most of the day. Which is where micro movement comes to the rescue. And you can’t beat the time-efficiency. Even if you’re doing a fairly vigorous movement, like walking steps, when you’re only exerting yourself for a few minutes, there’s no sweat, no shower, no work-out routine that can gobble up the better part of your afternoon or evening. So no more excuses – think a few exercise snacks every day, and perhaps a few extra on those days when you know you won’t quite be able to fit in a longer session. It’s the kind of guilt-free snacking we should all do more of!

Get your snacks, right here!

When it comes to increasing your movement moments throughout the day, first, think frequency and second, make a game of it. Look at all those moments in between meetings, between school pickups and the many to-do’s of the day as potential moments you can add a little movement to. Where to find that minute or two here and there? Here are few ways to slip in those healthy, exercise snacks:

1. A walk for dessert: Build in an extra ten minutes after lunch, or after dinner at home, for a head, and blood sugar-clearing walk. You can’t beat the metabolic boost after a meal. Don’t have 10 minutes? Then do a few flights of stairs, say 2 -5 minutes worth of stair climbing in your house or at the local running track.
2. Walk, don’t run (and definitely don’t sit): OK, you’ve probably heard this advice before, but are you doing it? Build in walk breaks throughout your day. Walk at least part of the way to work. If you take public transportation, stand up instead of sitting. At least you’ll be engaging your core muscles. If you’re out and about doing errands, park a 5-10 minute walk away from your destination, or at minimum, as far away from the mall door as you can roll your shopping card. The on-foot round-trips will add up.
3. The vertical office work-out: Whether you’re working from home or back in the office, taking a break to do 5 minutes up and down the office stairs is like the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) version of everyday movement. Enough to get heart and lungs pumping, not enough to work up a sweat. Better yet, you can step out before the boss wonders where you are.
4. Make your office movement friendly: Get the buy-in from your colleagues and hold short meetings standing up. Use a headset for phone meetings and walk around a conference room while you’re talking (a no-go, however, on Zoom). Also encourage the boss to buy you a sit-to-stand computer table. At about $80 -$120 for an inexpensive model, you can tell them it will save them at least than much in terms of productivity, which just happens to soar when one works standing up.
5. Keep yourself honest: Whether you’re at home or at the office, set your phone timer or your Fitbit to remind you every 45 minutes or so to take a micro-movement break. The choices are almost endless. At home, it might be some stretching or a couple of yoga poses to work out the kinks. Or a few laps around the office or outdoors environs. Or something higher intensity like jumping jacks (tolerant co-workers are a plus for this one). And a few minutes of strength-building body-work exercises are hard to beat: push-ups, prone planks, squats. Most offices have some kind of small semi-private space where you won’t call too much attention to yourself.
6. Just add music: Have some favorite tracks handy on your phone so you can turn a micro-break into a mini dance party. Even calisthenics accompanied by a toe-tapping groove can feel like an interpretative dance performance.
7. Add a smile to your household chores: Maybe it’s only doing the laundry but take a moment to appreciate it -- not are you doing work but the physical activity
is working for you. Got ironing? Put some music on and dance while you work. Mowing the lawn? Skip the seated mower and cut away – you get the picture. Think work + music + a sense of fun = a fitter you. Good stuff!
8. Make it social: Don’t make margaritas and chips dates the default for gatherings of your tribe. Move it as a group. Mix it up with walks or bike rides together – they can be leisurely if you like – or try meeting up for a class or activity you otherwise might not go to on your own. Urban rebounding anyone?
9. Ditch the pedal assist: It’s great that so many people these days are into cycling and scooting around their neighborhoods, to work, and to get wherever they need to go, but, the electric and ‘pedal assist’ options do little for your physical health. My advice? Either ditch them altogether and get those physical benefits back, or at least limit usage and on days when you’re in less of a hurry to get where you’re going, go old school and do pure pedal power.

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