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Working out in fun-sized portions

Are you strapped for time? Hate long workouts? You should try exercise snacking

Exercise multiple times for short durations everyday. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Exercise multiple times for short durations everyday. (Photo: Istockphoto)

Lakshmi Anand, a 44-year-old freelance writer, once spent an hour-and-a-half at the gym, five days a week. Then two things happened at almost the same time. Her gym closed, and she heard a doctor friend comment that exercising hard and then being sedentary almost nullified the exercise. She has changed her exercise pattern considerably since then. Now, she goes for a half-an-hour-long walk twice a day—mornings and evenings—and does bodyweight moves like lunges, squats, jumping jacks or toe touches for a few minutes all through the day. “At least 6-7 instalments of exercise a day, at minimum,” says the Chennai-based Anand. “Something about distributing activities all through the day just seemed right. It just doesn't make sense to be sedentary for 22.5 hours and pack in all the activity in 1.5.”

Exercise snacking, the separation of a single exercise session into several chunks spread through the day, may seem, at first glance, somewhat gimmicky. But there appears to be plenty of research to support the idea. According to a study published in 2019 in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, which explored how stair climbing exercise snacks impacted oxygen intake, “peak oxygen intake was higher in the climbers after the intervention (P = 0.003), suggesting that stair climbing “snacks” are effective in improving cardiorespiratory fitness.” Another study, published as far back as 2014 in the journal Diabetologia, which investigates the connection between exercise snacking and blood glucose control, implies as much. “Doing exercise as brief, intense 'exercise snacks' before main meals is a time-efficient and effective approach to improve glycaemic control in individuals with insulin resistance.”

For Anand, the benefits of exercise snacking have been tangible. She feels better mentally, she says, and more comfortable after meals since she now goes for a walk instead of plopping down right after eating. “Weight loss was never a goal but if anything, I have lost a few pounds,” she says. “What I do now does not feel nearly as intense, but I feel just as good.”

Moving more

With a lurking pandemic, having a robust immune system is essential. And exercise can play an active role in building it. As a March 2020 article published by the American College of Sports Medicine points out, “Exercise may not prevent us from becoming infected if exposed, it is likely that keeping active will boost our immune system to help minimize the deleterious effects of the virus.”

Exercise snacking is a convenient way for people to get in some exercise, especially those working from home who are too busy or too afraid to head to a gym. “People are more sedentary now because they are scared and not moving out of their homes,” says Jeeth Devaiah, a Bengaluru-based strength & conditioning coach. “This could lead to lifestyle diseases and more risk for injuries,” he says, adding that these could be equally debilitating. He advocates small sessions of bodyweight workouts spread throughout the day. “The main thing is to move your musculoskeletal system; when your body is moving, you burn more calories, and your BMR is higher.”

Meenakshi Mohanty, a Delhi-based fitness expert, agrees. While she still believes that nothing can completely replace a good workout session, moving a little is better than not moving at all. “You can have an exercise snack whenever it works for you,” she says. “The concept comes down to the fact that any exercise is better than none, and exercise can be done anywhere you think of it.”

How to snack

Vaibhav Ali, a 34-year-old entrepreneur, began snacking on exercise very recently—only after Covid-19 unfurled across the country.“Covid was a good reason to start because life had almost come to a standstill, all the eating out and travel too; here was the time I had been waiting for to start taking care of myself,” says Ali. He says that he fits in micro-workouts throughout the day--when he wakes up, before lunch, in the evening, before dinner and just before going to bed. So far, he likes it. “It gives me energy, helps me increase my sets and my body is more toned now.”

The easiest way to incorporate it into our daily lives is to set the alarm on your phone a few times a day and move when it rings, believes Punita Sharma, a Delhi-based yoga instructor. “This kind of break doesn’t impact work,” she says, adding that it may even make people work better “because the mind becomes more focused and the body absorbs more oxygen.”

Bengaluru-based Shwetambari Shetty, Fitness Expert, CureFit, however, offers a more cautious assessment of this trend. While it isn’t a bad idea to get a quick mobility-focused workout during the day “it removes the stiffness you get when you sit long hours”, exercise snacking isn’t ideal for more intense exercise since it could lead to injury. “I wouldn’t recommend intense movement without a warmup or cool down,” she says. And a workout which incorporates both these will take at least 20 minutes. Also, if you are training towards a specific goal—fat loss or muscle gain—snacking won’t cut it; you need to put in more effort to get there. “If people have the time to exercise snack, I recommend walking,” she says, adding that working towards a step goal is the best and safest way to get in extra activity. “Your body is doing is what it is designed to do, and it will help with fat burn.”

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