What are Exercise Snacks and Why are they Important?

By Lifestyle Medicine Staff

What are Exercise Snacks and Why are they Important?

We all enjoy a healthy snack like nuts and fruits or a less nutritious option like chips and sweets between our main meals, but have you ever heard of an exercise snack?

“Exercise snacks are short bouts of movements, anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, that don’t require going to the gym or any prep work. They are snacks, not meals,” says Marily Oppezzo, PhD, certified personal trainer and head of Stanford Lifestyle Medicine Healthful Nutrition pillar. “They can be anything that gets your heart rate up to a vigorous level–like jogging up the stairs at work or doing 20 jumping jacks–and you can accumulate vigorous activity multiple times throughout the day.” 

Exercise snacks are ideal for busy people. In our fast-paced lifestyle, it is challenging for many people to find the time to go to a gym and complete a formal workout. Exercise snacks offer an alternative way for busy folks to get their heart rate up and experience health benefits without changing their clothes or breaking a sweat.

Additionally, research shows that exercise snacks performed throughout the day may be more beneficial than a one-hour stint at the gym after sitting all day.

What Are Examples of Exercise Snacks?

If you have two minutes in your workday to get a snack from the refrigerator, you also have two minutes to do an exercise snack. Dr. Oppezzo explains, “Exercise snacks aren’t just a two-minute leisurely walk break. You’ll want the one-to-five-minute workout to elevate the heart rate to a point where it becomes hard to speak in complete sentences.”

Below are some examples of exercise snacks that Dr. Oppezzo recommends:

  • Instead of taking the elevator or walking up the stairs at work, jog up the flights.
  • Do 30 seconds of jumping jacks and 30 seconds of push-ups, repeating for two minutes while your food is warming up in the microwave.
  • Do one minute of burpees in the middle of your workday. If you cannot jump due to joint pain, here are instructions for walking-back burpees: put your hands on the back of a chair, step back, do a push-up, step forward, come to a squat and then reach for the sky. Repeat.
  • Do three minutes of the “Pet the Puppy” exercise. Instructions: stand up with feet hip-width distance, squat down, and pet an imaginary puppy; stand up, take a high knee step over the imaginary puppy with one leg followed by the other; squat down again and pet the puppy on the opposite side. Repeat petting and stepping (or jumping) over the puppy on the both sides.
  • High-knee march or jog in place, driving also with your arms, while your coffee is brewing.
  • Enjoy five minutes of Zumba on YouTube during your lunch break.

“With my clients, I’ve observed that becoming breathless with three or four exercise snacks throughout the day can sometimes be more stress-reducing than doing one longer workout and sitting the rest of the day,” says Dr. Oppezzo. “After raising your heart rate through exercise, your body has to kick into ‘calm down’ mode and exercise snacks give your body an opportunity to calm down multiple times throughout the day.”

Dr. Oppezzo is currently working on several exercise snack research studies. One is comparing breaks of walking and strength breaks throughout a sedentary day, and the other is helping identify the best ways to help people build exercise snacks as a habit.

Most people understand that many hours of sitting can be a health risk, but rather than focusing on total hours of sitting per day, Dr. Oppezzo recommends that we think about the number of hours we sit continuously without large muscle group movements. Therefore, she recommends a two-minute exercise snack every few hours of sitting. “We don’t know the optimal cadence of taking a break–every hour is easy to remember, but it’s not practical for many people,” says Dr. Oppezzo. “I would aim for taking a break every couple of hours, and try to make a few of your breaks heart-pumping exercise snacks.”

What Are the Benefits of Exercise Snacks?

Exercise snacks offer numerous health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, muscular strength, and cognitive enhancement. This review article of several studies on exercise snacks showed significant benefits on cardiorespiratory fitness, including decreased total cholesterol, increased oxygen consumption, and overall cardiovascular function. A prospective cohort study, which follows and measures people over a long period of time without giving them a particular intervention, found that participants who self-reported three-to-four minute incidental (or non-intentional) short bursts of physical activity throughout the day had a 31 percent reduced risk in physical-activity related cancer incidence, especially in adults who did not regularly exercise.

“People think they have to go to the gym and kill themselves every day to get a health benefit. They think you need to ‘go big or go home,’ but the research shows that 60 seconds of vigorous movement still counts,” says Dr. Oppezzo. “We make exercise too complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Rather than seeing exercise as an obligation or a chore, we can use exercise as a tool to manage stress and feel better. We can keep it simple with exercise snacks.”