If you’re like most Americans, you’ve been avoiding the gym. And it’s probably not necessarily because you hate exercising. Getting a workout can involve traveling to a fitness location, changing clothes, using equipment, navigating other exercisers, and then, of course, 30 to 60 minutes of physical endurance.
But what if taking the stairs a few times a day could “count” as exercise?
Canadian scientists who helped popularize high intensity interval training (HIIT) and the “one-minute workout” have released new research that supports a new way to improve physical fitness: “exercise snacks.”
No, it’s not a protein-based energy gel. It’s what researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada call short spurts of exercise interspersed throughout the day. Their recent study, published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, found that short bouts of physical movement — like briskly climbing stairs a few times a day — can effectively improve a person’s fitness level.
The McMaster scientists assigned a group of healthy, sedentary adults to “vigorously” climb up three flights of stairs three times a day, with a one to four hour rest in between, for six weeks. Their fitness levels were tested against a control group of sedentary non-exercisers.
In terms of cardiorespiratory fitness — how efficiently your heart and lungs move oxygen to your skeletal muscles during exercise — the results were modest: an improvement of 5 percent. Exercise snacking doesn’t create as much metabolic stress as, say, boot camp. And it’s metabolic stress that moves the needle for cardiorespiratory health.
But the exercise snackers’ power output (or how much energy they generate) improved by 12 percent, their exercise tolerance improved, and their functional performance improved as well. While more research is needed, the results sound good to Michele Olson, PhD, FACSM, senior clinical professor at Huntingdon College, Montgomery, Alabama, who says she’s seen similar results in endurance studies of more formalized exercise programs like jogging.
While cardiorespiratory health is important, Olson says we shouldn’t overlook the benefits of functional fitness gained from exercise snacking.
“Our heart is actually a muscle and, while it’s an extremely important muscle, it’s but one of the 600-plus muscles that allow us to move and maneuver in productive ways, such as squatting to pick up that stack of books and lifting and holding those books, groceries, children,” she says. The more we use our muscles — to pull on our bones, rotate our joints, flex, extend, bend — the less likely we are to suffer aches and pains, Olson says, including all-too-common back and neck pain.
Otherwise, she continues, a sedentary lifestyle leads to weak muscles, which leads to maladaptive movement patterns, which can then lead to injuries and the kinds of pain that keep us even more sedentary. It’s a feedback loop that can affect quality of life.
For personal trainer and certified CrossFit coach Tiana Gonzalez, another value to exercise snacking is its power to change your mindset. Taking on a fitness challenge in small bites rather than an overwhelming feast helps you reframe the task of exercising.
“Feeling a sense of accomplishment will encourage a shift in a client’s mindset from ‘This is really hard,’ or ‘I hate exercise,’ or even ‘I am never going to reach my goal,’ to ‘Wow, look what I did,” she says. From there, you can level up.