Studies suggest that it’s as effective as long slog gym sessions and it’ll help you hit your health goals without early alarms or stressful scheduling. Here’s how fitness snacking works and why you should try it (no food involved FYI)
Exercise snacking: not the act of eating a biscuit to tide you over, but short, sharp “portions” of exercise spread throughout the day to keep you as fit as actually making that morning HIIT class might. It’s officially the healthiest form of snacking there is, and it turns out that as a nation, we need it. With many more of us working from home for the foreseeable, it makes sense to slot our workouts throughout our days, too.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a lack of physical activity is a more significant health risk than being overweight or obese, yet a self-reporting WHO study published in 2018 revealed that a third of us aren’t clocking up the 150 minutes of exercise a week recommended by the NHS. Given that we tend to tell porkies on forms such as this (or innocently overestimate our own virtuous health behaviours), the real figure is likely much higher. Despite the groundswell of all things wellness in the past few years, Public Health England stats would indicate that our physical activity levels are steadily on the decrease, with women more likely to be inactive than men.
The reasons behind this gradual shift to leading more sedentary lifestyles are many and complex, but for women especially (for whom “having it all” hasn’t gone away and neither have caring responsibilities on the whole), finding time is a huge factor. A 45-minute gym class may not seem like much but when squeezed alongside meetings, deadlines, commutes, cooking, shopping, caring, sleeping and washing your family’s pants, you can see how even a sub-hour blast could become unfeasible. Which is why exercise snacking is so appealing and potentially life-changing.
The benefits of bitesize exercise
Fitness or exercise snacking isn’t necessarily a new concept and its benefits were first outlined in a 2014 study published in the journal Diabetologia , which found that “dosing exercise as brief, intense 'exercise snacks' before main meals is a time-efficient and effective approach to improve glycaemic control in individuals with insulin resistance.” As author of The Four Pillar Plan and exercise snacking advocate Dr Rangan Chatterjee highlights, even if you’re not diabetic or prediabetic, “doing strength or bodyweight training before meals has been proven to improve blood sugar control and improve muscle sensitivity to insulin which is something that we could all do with these days.”
You don’t just need to use bitesize sweat sessions as your ‘starter’ before meals either - an experiment by the BBC’s Trust Me I’m a Doctor team identified that blood glucose levels fell by the same amount (40 per cent) whether participants completed 30 minutes of brisk walking or broke down walks into five or six minutes ‘snacks’ spread throughout the day, when compared with no activity at all.
Many health experts also argue that exercise snacking could trump a single 30-minute session as it encourages regular movement throughout the day and is less likely to result in the long amounts of time spent sitting that are linked to slow metabolism, poor blood sugar control and a decrease in the body’s ability to effectively break down fat. All in all, dividing workouts into smaller more frequent sessions can provide multiple health and headspace benefits (no stressing about getting back to the office on time), but what’s the best way to snack?
Go hard, then go home
Reducing workouts to just five, ten or fifteen-minute ‘snacks’ sounds a bit like cheating the system, and while it’s certainly convenient, to be productive your exercise morsels need to be intense and incorporate both cardio and resistance training (although you don’t need to do both in the same session). As trainer to Samantha Cameron and Tom Ford, Matt Roberts explained to The Telegraph’s Stella magazine, “you need to move your body in a way that raises your heart rate every day.” Roberts uses a points system to rank exercise snacking sessions, with a fifteen-minute lunchtime walk or two escalator climbs banking you one point and a ten to fifteen minute fast and sweaty run allocating five. In total, you’d need ten points a day to hit the fitness snacking sweet spot using Matt’s method.
While all exercise is good exercise as long as performed safely, short, intense periods of exercise can also have more widespread lifestyle pros aside from freeing up your evenings according to fitness expert Zana Morris:
“Short bursts of intense training provides maximum release of the human growth hormone. The growth hormone is the structure hormone - it pushes protein back into everything in the body, for example calcium into the bones and collagen into the skin.
“In addition, while sleep tends to improve with all exercise, this is particularly true of high-intensity training.”
Your posture stands to straighten out too:
“Short training sessions with weights can target and treat specific aches and pains by balancing the muscles, strengthening the back and helping with neck and shoulder niggles caused by hunching over a computer or focusing on our screen on the commute.”
Given that women in particular experience a loss of muscle and bone density with ageing thanks to the drop in oestrogen that occurs around the menopause , weight and resistance based exercise snacking could be especially ‘gainful’ in this regard, but Zana emphasises that the advantages extend to all ages:
“High-intensity training is useful for everyone really, from young teens to the elderly. It can be particularly beneficial for those over the age of 30, when the growth hormone starts to decline and when we start to lose 1lb of muscle a year. High intensity weight training is wonderful in order to counteract this inevitable process.”
Finally, if you have been advised to lose weight, bear in mind that while exercise snacking may not be an immediate route to a healthy weight in itself, Zana affirms that it does have metabolic pay-offs that will contribute to better overall wellbeing:
“In reality you can’t burn enough calories from any exercise to make a difference - for weight loss it comes down to 85 per cent nutrition and 15 per cent exercise. That said, high intensity training will boost your metabolism from 2-48 hours after training, plus weight training builds muscle and every 1lb of muscle burns 50-100 calories per day.”
All things considered it’s a snack we like the sound of. If you’d like to get started, here are two exercise snacking ideas from British Triathlon and Fitness First’s ‘Go Tri’ campaign . No fear, they’re not asking you to complete a triathlon - the five and ten minute workouts have been devised by professional triathletes to help you get started on your fitness ‘journey’. Or just provide substance for your new kind of snacking habit…
Perform each action for 30 seconds, with a 30 second rest in between each exercise.
Standing knee raises
How to do it - From a standing position, raise your knees alternatively, reaching a 90-degree angle.
Benefits - Promotes better posture and improves balance, coordination and agility.
How to do it - With or without a rope, skip on the spot for 30 seconds to elevate your heart rate.
Benefits - Works a wide range of major muscle groups and is a highly effective cardio or HIIT workout.
How to do it - Start in a plank position with arms and legs straight. Pull your right knee into your chest and as the knee draws to the chest, pull your abs tight. Repeat with your left knee and alternate knees for 30 seconds.
Benefits – Builds strength in the shoulders, arms, chest and back.
How to do it - Starting in a standing position, jump from side-to-side as quickly as possible, imagining you’re jumping over a foot-high barrier.
Benefits – Increases leg strength, speed and agility.
Run on the spot
How to do it – From a standing position, run on the spot as fast as you can. Much like a triathlon, running is the final thing you’ll do so sprint for the line!
Benefits – An effective cardio workout that can be done anywhere, it burns calories and increases aerobic fitness.
Perform all exercises twice (consecutively or as a circuit) with 30 seconds work, followed by 30 seconds rest.
How to do it - Using a bench or plyometric box, step up onto the bench/ box, driving your right knee up to your chest and then step down. Alternate between knees for 30 seconds.
Benefits - As a unilateral exercise, you’re training each leg separately and improving your strength, endurance and balance.
Side Step Touches
How to do it - From a starting position hop from side to side, leaping as far out as you can and ensuring your feet stay pointed forward at all times. On landing, touch your hand to the outside of your foot.
Benefits - An effective cardio workout, side step touches help promote agility and endurance.
How to do it - From a standing position with your feet together, jump and extend your arms and legs out to the side, in unison, as many times as you can in 30 seconds.
Benefits - Gets the whole body moving and can be used as either a warm-up or as part of a full-body HIIT workout.
How to do it - Starting with your feet together, leap forward as far as you can before stepping backwards to return to your starting position. Repeat for 30 seconds
Benefits - Helps build explosive power and muscles in the legs.
How to do it - Starting with your legs shoulder width apart, run on the spot and flick your heels towards your glutes. Pump your arms as if you were running.
Benefits - Helps strengthen hamstrings and prevent injuries.