Fitness: Strapped for time but need a workout? Try an exercise snack

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Exercise snacks are bursts of high-energy movement meant to be squeezed in between meetings, phone calls, classes, answering emails and the constant demands of parenthood.

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Short bouts of high-intensity exercise have gone from fad to mainstream, with more and more science validating their place in the increasingly large spectrum of fitness options. But even within the realm of high-intensity exercise, there are choices to be made. From sprint interval training (SIT) to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), exercisers can choose how hard and how long they want to push their limits.

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Then there’s the new kid on the block, aimed at shaking things up on days when even a short visit to the gym is impossible.

“Exercise snacks” are bursts of high-energy movement meant to be squeezed in between meetings, phone calls, classes, answering emails and the constant demands of parenthood. Done with or without equipment, they consist of vigorous bouts of exercise lasting less than one minute and performed multiple times over the course of the day. Running up and down a flight of stairs, performing a series of calisthenics like jumping jacks and pedalling a stationary bike are examples of exercise snacks. Repeated several times a day, not only do they break up long periods of sitting, they have the potential to improve overall fitness.

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Exercise snacks were promoted in a recent edition of Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews by a trio of Canadian researchers. Their goal is to establish a place for exercise snacks in schools, workplaces and homes as an alternative on days when time is tight.

“Exercise snacks involving thrice daily ~ 15-30 seconds of hard effort involving cycling and more practical stair climbing are efficacious for improving cardiorespiratory fitness and exercise performance in inactive adults,” said Jonathan Little and Hashim Islam of the University of British Columbia Okanagan and Martin Gibala of McMaster University.

Gibala, author of The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That’s Smarter, Faster, Shorter, has been one of the leading scientific voices behind HIIT, publishing much of the research in the field. He supports exercise snacks as one more way people can add physical activity into a lifestyle that has made it harder and harder to find time for traditional workouts.

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The groundwork for establishing exercise snacks as a viable fitness option has already been done, much of it at UBC and McMaster. Research studying three bouts of vigorous stair climbing (racing up 60 steps in a three-flight stairwell as quickly as possible) performed one to four hours apart, three days a week for six weeks showed small but measurable improvements in aerobic fitness. Similar results were reported among a study sample of 12 inactive adults who performed three 20-second exercise snacks of all-out cycling, one to four hours apart.

Despite the growing body of research supporting snack-size bouts of exercise, there are still a few details that need nailing down, like how to accurately gauge exercise intensity over such a short duration, and how well this new form of interval training will be received outside the controlled conditions in a lab.

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Also unknown is whether exercise snacks will have the same effect on different subsets of the population, including the fit, the deconditioned and individuals with health conditions. Will people be motivated to do a workout at a hard intensity while at work, school or home, even if it’s for less than a minute? Is it feasible to run up and down the stairs in work or school clothes, or is a quick wardrobe change needed before working up a sweat? Will anyone take the time to warm up prior to exercising, which was standard practice in the research lab but less likely to happen among individuals left to do their own thing?

HIIT went through similar growing pains as it transitioned from lab-based to gym-based workouts. The original HIIT studies featured short efforts of working as hard as possible followed by a short period of rest, repeated several times. In practice, however, most HIIT workouts include longer, less intense intervals, which appeal to the average exerciser who may not be motivated by the extreme discomfort associated with working out at maximum or near-maximum effort.

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Also worth keeping in mind is that while HIIT workouts were originally sold on their brevity, most group exercise classes keep their participants active for 45 to 60 minutes. This means adapting the intensity and intervals to a workout that can be sustained over a longer period of time than the type of HIIT workouts Gibala and his associates featured in their labs.

How exercisers adapt the practice of exercise snacks to their own unique condition is worth watching. Also worth following is whether Little, Islam and Gibala are successful in adding exercise snacks to the increasingly large menu of workout options, and whether folks will buy in. Canadians can be fickle when it comes to exercise, even if it’s sold as an effective, time-efficient way to improve health and fitness.


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