Exercise Snacking


In 2002, my first year in personal training, I advised my clients to boost their metabolisms by eating as many as six small meals each day.  I also recommended that in order to optimize their health, they should incorporate three to five one-hour exercise sessions each week.

While that was sound advice at the time, research now shows that people should eat a maximum of three meals per day and, instead of three to five weekly workout sessions, they can add “exercise snacking” into their daily routines.  

There are several reasons for this paradigm shift and overall movement for people to eat less and be more consistently active.  For starters, Americans have gotten fatter and are less metabolically healthy.  It turns out that eating constantly keeps a person’s glucose elevated, and while working out intensely for several hours a week is a good thing, it doesn’t undo the damage caused by a person who remains seated for 12+ hours a day.   For this blog post, I want to focus on the benefits of “exercise snacking”, a term invented by someone with a greater mind for marketing than mine.

Like a snack is a smaller version of a meal, the goal of “exercise snacking” is for a person to incorporate small workouts throughout their day.  Technically, “exercise snacking” describes short, relatively intense bursts of exercises performed regularly.  Examples include one-minute of intense stair climbing, a minute of burpees, a one-minute sprint on the treadmill, etc.  “Exercise snacking” can also include slightly longer intervals, say five-to-ten minutes of lower intensity work, like a brisk walk or a moderate weight training session.  The bottom line is, the shorter the duration of exercise, the more intense the exercise must be.  Most people are hesitant to get out of their comfort zones and to effectively increase the intensity of short and regular bouts of exercise.  As an alternative, I encourage my clients to give “exercise snaking” a try by striving for multiple, less intense (five-to-ten minute) workouts throughout the day.  

For my clients who spend a lot of time sitting behind their desks and staring at computer screens, its important to get up and walk for at least one minute of every hour in addition to their “exercise snacking” sessions.  I often advise them that setting a timer will remind them to get up and move, and keeps them accountable, too.

When evaluating the benefits of “exercise snacking” most of the studies have been performed on sedentary individuals.  Sadly, 80% of Americans aren’t meeting the CDC guidelines of a minimum of 150 minutes per week of exercise, or 21 minutes a day.   This group is at an increased risk of developing co-morbidities and as such, scientists are focused on improving their health outcomes.    A meta-analysis of sixteen studies comparing longer, less frequent exercise sessions to moderately intense, shorter but more frequent sessions indicated that the latter yielded benefits to both blood sugar and blood pressure control. Although there was no evidence that “exercise snacking” helped with weight loss, it’s generally agreed that regular exercise improves overall health.  

Adjusting a person’s mindset is often the biggest barrier to adopting habitual “exercise snacking”.  Sometimes, the hard-core gym type can get totally thrown off when a busy week at work or a family crisis keeps them from completing their regular thrice-weekly gym workouts.  These people are often remiss in their thinking that a shorter, less-intense workout isn’t valuable or worth the effort.  On the contrary, regular and moderately intense exercise sessions that are short in duration (three to five minutes) can be very beneficial.  One can meet the CDC Guidelines of 21 minutes of moderate activity a day with four five minute exercise snacks a day.

It’s my belief that everyone—even those who are metabolically healthy—can benefit from exercise snacking.  So, if you’ve missed your gym session, or even if you’ve made your gym session, please incorporate “exercise snacking” into your daily routine.  If you’re trying to lose weight, an added benefit to moderately intense and relatively short exercise sessions is appetite suppression from the resulting glucose spike.  When we exercise, glucose is released from our muscle cells and floods the bloodstream. You’ll get all benefits of eating a Snickers bar without the calories and that, to me, is a perfect snack.