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Can snack-sized workouts keep you fit?

If you don't have the luxury of hour-long workouts at the gym, try shorter, more frequent sweat sessions

Small frequent bursts of exercise can keep you fit
Small frequent bursts of exercise can keep you fit (Unsplash)

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Before I became a parent, I had the luxury of long workouts at the gym. I would find a 60-minute playlist, plan an entire set of exercises that included almost pampering recovery times between each set, and unplug and enjoy my workouts at my leisurely pace. I even had time to chat with friends, check my text messages, and scroll through a bit of Instagram.

Now, as a parent and working mother, the idea of having a six and a zero in the same number of minutes available for a workout seems like science fiction. At best, I may have thirty minutes to myself throughout my day, which could include such activities as going to the washroom semi-exclusively on my own (if my toddler doesn't decide to take offence) and picking up messes on my way out the door.

Also read: When wearable technology leads to obsessive behaviour

Life has changed. Therefore, the expectation of my fitness routine has also had to change. There is no point in sugarcoating that I initially found it disappointing to rush through my workouts. However, life isn't just busy for me; it's busy for most people. If it's not the added responsibility of children, it could be the responsibility of ageing parents, a friend in need, or a relentless job or boss. Time is the ultimate luxury in our world, one we only genuinely appreciate when it's a scarce commodity. The only way forward was to find a solution that worked for my time, not try to create more hours in the day (impossible, I've tried. Apparently, I also need to sleep).

By switching to shorter and more condensed workouts, I've realized that I can achieve my fitness goals and a small mental-health break by limiting my workouts to 30-40 minutes per day. Those 30-40 minutes may not be continuous, but rather, 2-3 smaller sessions that I can do anywhere, at any time, during the day. 

I now work out smarter, not longer. I'm laser focused rather than leisurely, and I can still keep my stress levels low because my workouts are never long enough to overrun my other priorities at work or home. Authorities such as the American College of Sports Medicine and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back me up on this. While they both suggest that all adults should engage in 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day, they also say this can be done in multiple short sessions, as opposed to the traditional approach of one long session.

Most of us mentally struggle with transitioning between long workouts and getting in "snack" sized bouts of exercise throughout the day. One of two things happens when people have too little time to do something. The first reaction is to give up. Why even begin if you can't do something to your total capacity? On a superficial level, that argument makes sense. The second reaction would be to lean into your little time and make the most of it. Rather than giving up entirely, they seize the time they have to do at least "something." Take a hard look at one crucial difference between the two scenarios: consistency. In the fitness industry, there is a saying: don't try to do the perfect plan imperfectly, do the imperfect plan perfectly. The ideal plan may be too much for our lifestyles, so it's better to do something consistently rather than nothing.

Life isn't getting less busy any time soon, so it will benefit us all to start thinking of exercise as something we can do all day, in short bursts, rather than a dedicated slog on the treadmill. It's time to focus on the small things you can do consistently rather than significant, inconsistent actions to feed your success.

If you still need help finding a dedicated thirty minutes, let's break this down into the smallest, snack-sized exercise plan. Let's break our 30 minutes into six five-minute bouts of exercise and challenge ourselves within those five minutes to do something physical.

To complete this challenge, choose three activities you frequently do during the day. It could be refilling your water bottle, going to the washroom, or checking your text messages. Assign one small physical activity you can do with each of these activities to slowly build in your movement.

Also read: Why being neutral about your body is the best form of self-love

For example, every time you go to the washroom, you must do ten squats (in the privacy of your cubical, of course). Every time you check your text messages or want to scroll through Instagram Reels, you complete ten wall or desk push-ups. And finally, if you fill your water bottle a few times a day, your task may be to walk one extra loop around your floor before filling up your bottle to get in the additional steps.

If you are diligent about following through with these daily activity-based challenges, you can rack up fifty push-ups, thirty squats, and a couple of hundred extra steps. Practice this for at least 2-3 weeks and notice how much stronger you become. This is only the beginning of your journey – once you become stronger and fitter, you must take it one step further. You can do this by:

1. Adding in stairs, rather than taking the lift to your desk

2. Walking to see your colleagues rather than emailing or phoning them

3. Take an active lunch break, where you walk and talk with colleagues

4. Add more activity-based challenges, such as stationary lunges while talking on the telephone or stretching after checking your emails.

5. Fill up water bottles and keep them by your desk. Set a timer once every hour to do some quick shoulder presses, bicep curls, or arm raises.

Over time, your entire day will be full of positive steps toward your fitness goals, and you'll find it more and more unnecessary to spend endless hours in the gym.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach


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