Health Fitness

How ‘exercise snacks’ can add more movement in less time in your day

The Dose22:42What’s the least amount of exercise I can do to get the benefits?

Most people know they need to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives in order to maintain their overall health.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to use busy lives as an excuse to skip workouts even as research shows consistent physical activity can increase your life expectancy and help prevent some chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. 

Guidelines published by the World Health Organization — as well as groups like the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology — recommend that most people should move for roughly 150 minutes to 300 minutes every week, engaging in moderate to vigorous aerobic activity. 

“If you’re working out, kind of a brisk walk intensity about half an hour a day, you’re meeting those international physical activity guidelines,” said Dr. Jane Thornton, a sport medicine physician at Western University’s Fowler Kennedy Sports Medicine Clinic in London, Ont., and a former Canadian Olympic rower.

Most guides also recommend a few sessions of muscle strengthening every week as well. 

Dr. Jane Thornton is a sport medicine physician at Western University’s Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic. (Submitted by Dr. Jane Thornton)

Still, there are a number of ways to increase your daily movement to get the health benefits — without necessarily increasing the amount of time you spend working out. 

“Be reassured that any movement helps,” Thornton told The Dose host Dr. Brian Goldman. 

“The biggest benefit is just from starting to move.”

Benefits of short, intense bursts of physical activity 

While 150 to 300 minutes of physical activity every week might seem like a lot, that averages out to about half an hour of movement every day. 

The concept of “exercise snacks” can help people break up their sedentary behaviour, Thornton said. 

“Essentially, we think about these short bursts of intense physical activity as being something that’s lower volume,” she said. “So it doesn’t take up quite as much time, but it’s usually a little bit more intense.”

A photograph of a smiling, bald man.
Martin Gibala is a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University. (Science Media Lab/McMaster University)

Research suggests that most people can get similar benefits as longer sessions of moderate exercise if they engage in even shorter, more intense bursts of physical activity. 

Martin Gibala is a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton who has researched the ways that vigorous physical activity compares with moderate physical activity.

He says higher cardio fitness levels are associated with “better health outcomes and a lower risk of developing many chronic conditions.”

A 2022 study co-authored by Gibala tracked 25,241 British non-exercisers who engaged in three one- to two-minute sessions of vigorous physical activity throughout their day, showing a 38 per cent to 40 per cent reduction in “all-cause and cancer mortality.”

The same study obtained similar results when analyzing the vigorous activity of 62,344 British participants who regularly exercised. 

He explains that the results aren’t “cause-and-effect,” but they do show compelling evidence that vigorous, intermittent physical activity can promote health given the sample size. 

“The improvement in that cardio fitness … can be elicited with a relatively small dose of the vigorous stuff, as compared to a larger dose of the traditional moderate,” said Gibala. 

Thornton uses something called the “talk test” to measure the difference between moderate and vigorous activity.

“If you can hold a conversation, but you’re still kind of breathing a little bit more shallow, maybe you’re breaking a sweat, you’re probably in that brisk, moderate intensity zone,” she said. 

Vigorous activities are those that leave us a little bit more out of breath, able to talk, but “you’re not fully able to form full sentences,” Thornton said.

How can I amp up my everyday movement?

Outside of running in place, of course, sprinting still requires space like a fitness track or equipment like a treadmill.

However, Fruitvale, B.C., yoga therapist Abby Verigin says there are easy ways to increase the intensity of everyday movement like walking. 

She says taking the stairs rather than using an elevator or escalator is one easy solution — so is walking uphill or on an incline. 

A photo of a young woman smiling at the camera.
Abby Verigin is a yoga therapist in Fruitvale, B.C. (Submitted by Abby Verigin)

Breaking up long sitting sessions once an hour by standing, doing air squats or even burpees are other ways to increase our heart rate without radically changing the way we regularly move, says Verigin.

Gibala said that parents can increase their movement intensity by engaging in “some vigorous play with your children, even for a couple of minutes at a time.”

“You don’t need a gym membership to do this,” he said.

Regardless of how we want to tackle our physical well-being, experts agree that movement of any kind is beneficial. 

“Every move counts,” Thornton said.

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