Even small tastes of exercise can help you keep fit

Be Your Best, Summer 2023

Benita Zahn, certified health and wellness coach
Benita Zahn photo by Michael Gallitelli.

Sometimes a full meal just isn’t, ahem, on the menu. It could be due to a lack of time to prepare it, or to sit down and enjoy it, or simply no interest in having that much food. So, we turn to snacking. Some of the best meals with my husband start with carrots, hummus, cheese, crackers and, voila — the next thing you know we’ve added some olives, perhaps shrimp, and a delicious, nutritious meal of diverse tastes has been enjoyed. 

Turns out we can “snack” on exercise as well and obtain benefits similar to those that occur when we work out longer. 

Most of us know that the Centers for Disease Control advises us to engage in moderate-to-vigorous exercise for 150 minutes a week. A pair of studies published in the April 2015 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that “Those who met the guidelines precisely, completing 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, enjoyed greater longevity benefits and 31 percent less risk of dying during the 14-year period compared with those who never exercised.” 

When I share that research with my clients, many respond by saying 1) they hate exercising and/or 2) they don’t have time to do all that. So, how to get the physical activity our bodies apparently need and probably crave? Snack! 

Turns out that moving vigorously for a minute or two repeatedly through the day packs a powerful health punch. Two recent articles detail this. The January 2022 edition of the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews found that performing short bouts (one minute or less) of vigorous exercise throughout the day is a “feasible, well-tolerated, and time-efficient approach” to improving heart and lung health and reducing the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on cardiometabolic health. 

An article in the December 2022 issue of Nature Medicine bolsters this fact. Researchers in that article report that getting small amounts of vigorous non-exercise physical activity interspersed throughout your day is linked to a reduced risk of dying. Specifically, they note that those who engaged in three bouts of activity per day lasting about one or two minutes each had a 38%-40% reduction in all-cause and cancer mortality risk as well as a 48%-49% reduction in risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. That’s right, three “snacks” a day have a positive health impact. 

I checked out this theory with my go-to guy for all things activity related, Paul Arciero, professor for the Health and Human Physiological Sciences Department at Skidmore College. Spot on, he assures me, and he recommends these short bursts to all who are time challenged or embarking on a physical activity program.

The key to exercise snacks is that they must be vigorous. In other words, you must move at an intensity that makes it tough to talk. You can walk with a powerful stride, walk stairs with focus, or dance as if no one is watching. Even chores like mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, and playing with the grandkids can add up. 

In a sense, these short bursts or snacks mimic the popular HIIT (high-intensity interval) workouts that consist of short bursts of high-intensity activity followed by a short breather. Moreover, once you embrace the snacking approach to exercise and start reaping the benefits — such as improved energy, strength and even weight loss — you might consider other programs or forms of movement that lead to the 150 minutes per week the CDC recommends. Yes, that’s still the gold standard — but as the snacking research shows, a little exercise is far better than nothing. After all, “sitting is the new smoking,” a phrase coined by Dr. James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. He points to research showing a sedentary lifestyle is akin to smoking when it comes to mortality risk. 

Just get started. Moving with intensity doesn’t require special clothing, a gym membership, or an extensive time commitment. There are many short-duration programs available online if you need suggestions or want more variety in your snacks. 

Bottom line, like the Nike ad says, just do it. And snack to your heart’s delight.

Benita Zahn is a certified health and wellness coach working in the Capital Region. Visit benitahealthcoach.com or follow her on Facebook.

Main photo: iStockphoto.com/Ivan Bajic.

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