Over and over, we’ve heard advice on how to keep our body healthy.
- Exercise roughly 30 minutes/day, 5 days/week.
- Do strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups 2 or more days a week.
- Get 8 hours of sleep every night.
- Eat nutritionally balanced meals, plus a couple healthy snacks each day.
But it can sometimes feel overwhelming when you look at it all in a list. It’s easy to take an “all-or-nothing” approach and give up before you even begin. However, research shows that even small things can add up to significant benefits.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear points out that people tend to underestimate the power of small daily advances toward better health. He states: “The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision.”
For example, at a vending machine, choose the bag of almonds over the chocolate bar. Making that small choice can have a ripple effect which leads to another healthy choice and another after that; making healthy habits that become a lifestyle.
One small choice you may have never considered is to take a few “exercise snacks” during your day. These can be in addition to your regular workout. Or, even if these brief bursts of movement constitute your total physical activity, they can still have multiple beneficial effects. Check out the research!
Short Bursts of Exercise improves Blood Pressure
A randomized trial evaluated 3 “exercise” regimens:
- 4×10-minute episodes of brisk walking per day
- 40 minutes continuous brisk walking per day
- no brisk walking.
Subjects in the trial (35 hypertensive adults with a mean age of 53 years old) rotated through each regimen. They performed the exercise for 4 days, then did no exercise for 10 days before going on to the next plan. Their blood pressure was evaluated before, during and after each regimen. Not only did the 4×10 minute regimen reduce systolic BP almost as much as the 40-minute regimen (-7.5 vs -7.3 mmHG), but the short bursts regimen actually made a LARGER DIFFERENCE in the diastolic than the single 40-minute regimen (-4.0 vs -5.4 mmHG).
Brief Bursts of Vigorous Exercise Improves Cardiorespiratory Fitness
Interval training has gained significant popularity in recent years. Short bursts of intense activity followed by a brief rest period, repeated for a series of rounds. Research has shown this type of training can pack significant benefits into an overall short exercise window.
What happens if those activity bursts are stretched out to an hour, or even longer, rather than the brief 30 seconds to a minute? Does scaling the stairs a couple times a day really make a difference? Researchers say yes!
Young, healthy, but inactive adults were divided into 2 groups. Each participated in 18 training sessions over the course of 6 weeks.
The traditional Sprint interval training (SIT) group performed 3×20-second bouts of activity interspersed with 3-minute rest within a 10-minute training session. By contrast, the Sprint snacks (SS) group did 3×20-second ‘all out’ cycling bouts separated by 1 to 4 hours of rest.
Researchers measured participants VO2peak (Peak oxygen uptake) before and after each training session. They also recorded a cycling timed trial and a rating of exercise enjoyment. Results showed that subjects in both groups experienced improved VO2 peak with the SS group having only slightly lower increase (~4%) than the SIT group (~6%). Results after the time trial were similar, with the SIT experiencing an improvement of ~13% and the SS group improving ~9%. Researchers concluded that exercise “snacks” throughout the day increased cardiorespiratory fitness similar to those who participated in traditional sprint interval training.
Being an Elev-Hater Has Cognitive Benefits for More Challenging Tasks, For College Age Males
Often, studies addressing the effects of acute exercise on cognition and mood utilize specialized laboratory-based equipment. This makes the research easier, but isn’t always a good comparison to real-world life.
Since stairs are a regular occurrence in both homes and workplaces, researchers used the effects of stair-climbing intervals on subsequent cognitive performance and mood in healthy young adults. Subjects participated in 2 sessions, 1 week apart. One for a control, where no exercise was performed, and one where they did three 1-minute stair-climbing intervals.
Both cognitive performance and mood were assessed at the end of each session. In general, participants reported feeling more energetic, less tense, and less tired following the stair climbing. They found that the higher exercise intensity predicted even higher energy ratings. Additionally, the males experienced improved cognitive benefits, especially in switching performance. Researchers concluded that “mood benefits of exercise can be achieved with shorter and less intense exercise in naturalistic settings”.
Stairs Are Better Than Caffeine for Physically Active, College Female Caffeine Users with Chronic Insufficient Sleep
At various times in life, many people will experience sleep deprivation. Whether it’s a student studying for finals, parents getting up with a newborn, or simply “binge watching” TV all night, lack of sleep can create a significant problem. This is not just because it leaves you feeling groggy or grumpy, but because it can lead to dangerous situations when driving or operating machinery.
Caffeine is a common alertness-enhancing substance that is used by many to combat sleepiness. Since exercise is also associated with promoting alertness, researchers designed an experiment to compare the two.
They recruited 18 college age women who reported as to their daily minimal to moderate caffeine consumption, typical leisure time physical activity that was not extreme and sleeping less than 45 hours per week.
Each participant was evaluated for mood state, energy feelings, working memory, sustained attention, simple reaction time, and motivation to complete cognitive tasks. These evaluations were measured both before and after a 10-minute exercise condition (20-minutes seated rest followed by 10-minutes of low-to-moderate intensity stair walking). The results were compared to evaluations taken before and after a caffeine condition (50mg caffeine capsule followed by 30-minutes of seated rest). A similar flour (placebo) capsule condition provided a control for comparisons. Results revealed that stair-walking increased energy more than placebo and more than caffeine!
High-Intensity Interval Training Improves Cognitive Function for Healthy Middle-Aged Individuals
The benefits of short bursts of activity are not only for the young! A study evaluating the effects of high-intensity interval training (HIT) on selective attention and short-term memory tasks.
The subjects for this study were 22 healthy, middle-aged individuals (mean age 53.7 years old). Each subject participated in a HIT session comprised of 10, 1-minute cycling bouts with 1-minute active pauses of cycling at a lower intensity, as well as an session with low-intensity active stretching exercises.
Cognitive function was evaluated both before and after the sessions using a selective attention test and a short-term memory test. Subjects completed the “Color word” test, a subtask of the selective attention test. The time to complete the test, was significantly lower when compared with that of the control session leading researchers to conclude that a single HIT session can improve cognitive function.
When it comes to health, it’s time to put that all-or-nothing thinking to rest! If you have time for a full 30-minute workout, that’s great. And for some conditions, you may get better results that way. On the other hand, the benefits of an exercise “snack” should never be discounted.
From blood pressure to energy to cognitive function and more, your body will reap the benefits of movement, even for brief activities. Besides, an “exercise snack” is a lot less intimidating than a spin class for those who have not been active previously.
Remember that the ability to move freely is a blessing and something we should enjoy. Over time, those brief snacks may grow to longer activities, and eventually, you may enjoy full “exercise meals”! By finding new, small ways to add exercise to your day, your body can feast on the benefits of an active lifestyle.
Talk to your chiropractor at your next visit about ways you can plan “exercise snacks” into your daily routine to reach your health goals safely and more quickly.
Elley R, Bagrie E, Arroll B. Do snacks of exercise lower blood pressure? A randomised crossover trial. N Z Med J. 2006 Jun 2;119(1235):U1996. PMID: 16751820.
Little JP, Langley J, Lee M, Myette-Côté E, Jackson G, Durrer C, Gibala MJ, Jung ME. Sprint exercise snacks: a novel approach to increase aerobic fitness. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 May;119(5):1203-1212. doi: 10.1007/s00421-019-04110-z. Epub 2019 Mar 7. PMID: 30847639.
Stenling A, Moylan A, Fulton E, Machado L. Effects of a Brief Stair-Climbing Intervention on Cognitive Performance and Mood States in Healthy Young Adults. Front Psychol. 2019 Oct 15;10:2300. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02300. PMID: 31681096; PMCID: PMC6803754.
Randolph DD, O’Connor PJ. Stair walking is more energizing than low dose caffeine in sleep deprived young women. Physiol Behav. 2017 May 15;174:128-135. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.03.013. Epub 2017 Mar 14. PMID: 28302573.
Alves CR, Tessaro VH, Teixeira LA, Murakava K, Roschel H, Gualano B, Takito MY. Influence of acute high-intensity aerobic interval exercise bout on selective attention and short-term memory tasks. Percept Mot Skills. 2014 Feb;118(1):63-72. doi: 10.2466/22.06.PMS.118k10w4. PMID: 24724513.
Selig, Meg. 10 Delicious “Exercise Snacks” for Fun and Fitness. Psychology Today Posted Jan 29, 2019 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/changepower/201901/10-delicious-exercise-snacks-fun-and-fitness
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. NY: Penguin Random House.
Harvard Health Letter. 5-minute fixes for better health. Published: December, 2018 https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/5-minute-fixes-for-better-health?utm_source=delivra&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=WR20190104-Mens50&utm_id=1175497&dlv-ga-memberid=11189015&mid=11189015&ml=1175497
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/PAG_ExecutiveSummary.pdf
Exercise Can HIT Metabolic Syndrome Head On https://www.tnchiro.com/news/exercise-can-hit-metabolic-syndrome-head-on/ Posted: March 10, 2020