After 11 months of struggling to find my pandemic fitness groove, I tapped into the joys and benefits of intermittent movement.

By Julia Eskins
February 18, 2021
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Mindless snacking has gotten a bad rap in the health world. But when I heard that bite-sized workouts — also known as "exercise snacks" — could be the antidote to my Zoom class fatigue, I decided to switch up my fitness diet.

Like many, I started the new year with the intention of refreshing my at-home exercise routine after a very sedentary 2020. When I heard rumblings that micro-workouts throughout the day could be as effective as a long slog at the gym, I was intrigued. But could a few bursts of burpees really deliver the same results as those virtual Pilates classes I was constantly skipping? To my surprise, the answer was a resounding yes — according to experts, those snacks stack up and can even offer additional benefits you can't get from a single A-Z session.

New research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that interrupting 30 minutes of prolonged sitting with short activity breaks like a set of squats or a 2-minute walk can help stabilize blood sugar levels in healthy adults. This means that even getting up to water my small army of plants could lower my risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Another study led by McMaster University in collaboration with UBC Okanagan, published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, found that people who performed three intermittent bouts of stair-climbing (of three flights or 60 steps per bout) a day achieved a similar cardiovascular boost one would get from a longer moderate-intensity workout. (More here: Research Found the Quickest, Least Painful Way to Up Your Cardio)

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"These studies are a reminder of the value of brief bouts of vigorous effort, including simple activities that do not require equipment and 'old-school' exercises," says Martin Gibala, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster and senior author on the study. "It is a message that seems to resonate with many individuals, given the current reality of stay-at-home orders, and limited access to fitness facilities."

For some, the hardest part is getting started. A lack of desire to engage in regimented workouts isn't just because of the pandemic; it's biological, according to Nike Master Trainer Joe Holder, who's long championed exercise snacking on his personal Instagram and has since created an Exercise Snacks brand to encourage the practice.

"We're not naturally inclined to exercise, it's a new phenomenon associated with modern living. 'Intermittent movement,' however, is something we have precedence of," says Holder.

It makes sense: Early ancestors spent hours a day hunting and gathering, leaving little time or need for regimented workouts — in fact, conserving energy was often their main objective. But today, in the advent of computer-centric jobs, the natural tendency to avoid movement can be problematic. High caloric foods are readily available, many people spend the majority of the day sitting in front of screens, and it's typical to condense movement into one dedicated hour. That isn't to say that hour can't be effective — in fact, Holder recommends people aim for two to four longer or more high-intensity workouts a week while also engaging in intermittent movement daily — but adding more intermittent movement into your day can be just as beneficial (if not more) as carving out longer, structured periods.

"Of course, when you need to do something that is aesthetics- or performance-based [such as training for a race], you might need to switch it up, but for most people, this isn't the case," he says. "Anything to get the blood flowing will have benefits for your overall health."

There's a reason why sitting is demonized. Evidence shows sedentary behavior is a risk factor for several chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as overall mortality, says Gibala. Fortunately, getting up to move every hour can reverse the damage by reducing inflammation and improving glucose metabolism markers in the blood.

As I pondered turning my building's stairwell into my personal gym, I thought about my overall health goals. For me, the impetus was finding a creative way to have a well-rounded approach to fitness. On weekdays, I would typically sit at my desk for eight hours before hitting the pavement for a run. While I could technically check "working out" off my to-do list, I realized my regimen lacked a strength training element. It also wasn't helping to stave off the sluggish feeling that I thought would disappear with the other pitfalls of 2020. So, I began exercise snacking. (Related: Why You Might Be Experiencing Quarantine Fatigue — and How to Deal with It)

To take the guess-work out of it, I used Holder's recommended strategy of setting an alarm for every 60-90 minutes of sitting. During the first week, I set a goal of doing five 10-minute movement breaks per day — from lunges across the room to sumo squats. Now, six weeks in, I'm using some services that cater to the world's growing preference for express workouts. In the morning, I'll queue up a quick vinyasa flow on Alo Moves and later take a lunchtime walk. I'll then break up my afternoon with a few bodyweight exercises from the Nike Training Club app or power through 10 minutes of torture delivered with a smile by Pamela Reif on YouTube. Because the drills are so short, I rarely need to hype myself up to do them and find I can easily stick to my goal of getting in at least an hour of intermittent movement throughout the day. Admittedly, my WFH uniform of leggings or sweatpants allows me to go between my mat and meetings with little fuss. (Read more: The Best Home Workout Apps to Download Right Now)

When it comes time to work, I feel more productive and focused than ever. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, even just five minutes of exercise can produce anti-anxiety effects — something everyone could use these days.

Clearly, my body thinks so too. After 10 minutes of moving, I usually end up craving a little bit more — so I'll load up another video or get in a few more sets to beef up my snack. As Holder advises, I still dedicate time to more structured workout sessions — a long-distance run or a 90-minute Ashtanga yoga class — about twice a week. But after previously suffering chronic injuries from doing repetitive workouts daily, my body is enjoying the variety. There are, of course, days when the snacks don't happen. But instead of beating myself up for missing a workout as I used to, I've become more mindful about the small ways I can disrupt my sedentary lifestyle. I'll opt to take the stairs instead of the escalator, I'll walk instead of hopping on the subway, I'll pace while talking on the phone instead of sitting — all of these choices count as intermittent movement or exercise snacks, even if they don't require a squat or burpee. When previously working out once a day, I would typically get in about an hour of movement. Now, I find I'm active for a total of about 2 hours a day (sometimes more), without really trying. (Related: How to Adjust Your Workout Intensity During the Coronavirus Pandemic)

Apparently, I'm not the only one who sees the appeal. The New York Times has dubbed 2021 "the year of the exercise snack," and other services including Apple Fitness+ and Kayla Itsines' Sweat app are rolling out more quick workouts to keep up with the demand.

As with others who have embraced 2021's quickie phenomenon, my mindset toward exercising at home has completely changed. By removing the pressure of committing to a long sweaty session, I'm finding the fun in movement again. It's too early to tell if my newfound love of micro-workouts will continue after gyms and yoga studios fully reopen but, for now, I'm making the most of spontaneous snacking in sweatpants.

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