Inactive people started moving more if they received daily step targets that exceeded their usual number by about 500 steps.
Make 2021 the year of the exercise snack.
Just as you might grab a handful of chips or nuts to break the monotony of your day, an exercise “snack” is a short burst of movement you can enjoy at home or in the office or outdoors. It can last for mere seconds or for several minutes. You can do it while talking on the phone or just because you want to take an hourly break from sitting in your chair. You don’t even have to change your clothes.
A number of scientific studies show that exercise snacking several times a day leads to meaningful gains in fitness and overall health. A recent study concluded that even just 4-second bursts of exercise have been shown to improve fitness.
“We’ve sort of been conditioned that exercise is this thing you do in a special place once you change into spandex, and it’s very daunting for people,” said Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, whose lab has conducted several studies of exercise snacking. “Let’s get people out of the mind-set that exercise is this special thing we do. You can just be active, even if it means setting your watch to trigger you to do some squats or wall sits for one minute after an hour of sitting.”
For many of us, the exercise snack has already become a part of pandemic life, even if we haven’t been aware of it. Studies have shown that pandemic restrictions have slowed many people down. Average daily steps declined by about 5.5 percent during the first 10 days of a nation’s pandemic lockdowns and by about 27 percent by the end of the first month, according to data from more than 450,000 users of a smartphone step-counting app.
But to compensate, many people found ways to keep moving in their homes. An April study by Yelp, the local search and reviewing site, found that interest in fitness equipment had risen by 500 percent between March and April in the United States. Workout bands, kettle bells and exercise bikes sold out in stores and online, and exercisers found workout apps and videos to help them keep moving while stuck at home. Some people took short walks to make up for losing the morning commute. Others did jumping jacks or wall push-ups to break up hours of sitting at the laptop.
Several studies show that these small bursts of exercise can have a big impact on health. One recent study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, recruited 11 overweight men and women who were asked to sit for nine hours a day in cozy recliners, where they worked or watched television. They were all served three meals while sitting in their chairs. One day the participants never left the chair except to go to the bathroom. On another day, they left the chair just once an hour to race up three flights of stairs, which took about 20 seconds. Among the overweight participants, adding a 20-second burst of stair climbing to an otherwise sedentary day led to improvements in insulin sensitivity, a sign of metabolic health.
“We’re better able to process nutrients if we break up our sitting with these short bursts of exercise once every hour,” said Jonathan Little, associate professor in the school of health and exercise sciences at the University of British Columbia. “I don’t think it replaces regular exercise, but we think you can get some bang for your buck with a small amount of these exercise bursts. Working from home could make these exercise snacks a lot easier. If you have an exercise bike, you theoretically don’t need to change into exercise gear — in a 20-second burst, you’re not going to sweat.”
The study built on similar research at McMaster University that showed exercise snacks can lead to meaningful improvements in fitness. In that study, a dozen exercisers raced up three flights of stairs just three times a day for three days a week. After six weeks of these 20-second snacks of exercise, the exercisers had increased their aerobic fitness by about 5 percent. They also showed improvements in leg power and could generate more power while cycling.
Dr. Gibala said the lesson from the research is that with a little effort, we can stay active anywhere under almost any circumstances — no matter how busy we are. The key to getting the benefit of brief exercise is to pick up the pace.
“You need to push it a little bit,” said Dr. Gibala. “Get out of your comfort zone. If your normal exercise is walking around the block, pick it up a little bit. As you go about your day, as you’re playing with grandchildren, as you’re walking to the bus; the key is to encourage people to do it in a vigorous manner, and that may lead to some real health benefits.”
To learn how to add exercise snacks into your day, try the second day of our 7-Day Well Challenge. Sign up for the Well newsletter to get each day’s challenge in your inbox.
Try an Exercise Snack
This week, try one or more of these exercise challenges to add short bursts of exercise throughout your day.
Add exercise to your phone call: A work or social call is a great time to add some activity to your day — and the person on the other end of the phone doesn’t have to know about it. Just get up and start walking around your home as you talk. If you have hand weights, do some arm exercises. Do a yoga pose or a wall sit while you chat.
Add music to your movement break: Every hour or few hours, turn on a favorite song, and dance or do jumping jacks or another physical activity. If you’ve got children or another adult at home, ask them to join you. Adding music to a walk or just taking a short dance break will enhance the restorative benefits of exercise, said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and author of “The Joy of Movement.”
“Moving to music is one of the best ways to increase positive emotions and to connect with other people,” said Dr. McGonigal. “Think about something like a movement break to music if you need more energy, or if you need a big emotional reset.”
Do the 7-Minute Standing Workout: Take a 7-minute break during your day to try our new standing workout video. All you need is a wall, a chair for balance and sturdy shoes. The workout was designed by Chris Jordan, director of exercise physiology at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute and creator of the original scientific 7-minute workout. The standing workout was designed for newcomers to exercise, older people, pregnant women or anyone with an ache or injury that keeps them from easily getting down on the floor or back up. But anyone can take advantage of the benefits of this exercise snack.
Video by Ruru Kuo, Rob Dozier, Jaspal Riyait and Tara Parker-Pope. Workout created and performed by Chris Jordan, director of exercise physiology at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute.
Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Neighborhoods designed for walking may decrease the rates of being overweight or obese and having diabetes by more than 10 percent, a new study concludes.
Canadian researchers studied more than three million people in 8,777 neighborhoods in urbanized areas of Ontario, ranking them for “walkability” on a 100-point scale that measures population density, numbers of facilities within walking distance of residences and how well connected their webs of streets are.
The study, published in JAMA, adjusted for age, sex, income and other factors, and found that the prevalence of being overweight and obese was more than 10 percent lower in the one-fifth of neighborhoods rated highest for walkability than in the one-fifth rated lowest. Over the 12-year study period, being obese and overweight increased by as much as 9.2 percent in the three-fifths of neighborhoods rated lowest, with no change in the two-fifths rated highest.
The incidence of diabetes was also lowest in the most walkable neighborhoods, a difference that persisted throughout the study.
The authors acknowledge that this was not a randomized trial and does not prove causation. Still, the senior author, Dr. Gillian L. Booth, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said that the healthiest neighborhoods seem to be those where cars are not a necessity.
“Walking, cycling and public transit rates were much higher in walkable neighborhoods,” she said, “and that leads to better health outcomes.”
Credit Illustration by Sam Island
More people are living longer these days, but the good news comes shadowed by the possible increase in cases of age-related mental decline. By some estimates, the global incidence of dementia will more than triple in the next 35 years. That grim prospect is what makes a study published in March in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease so encouraging: It turns out that regular walking, cycling, swimming, dancing and even gardening may substantially reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Exercise has long been linked to better mental capacity in older people. Little research, however, has tracked individuals over years, while also including actual brain scans. So for the new study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and other institutions analyzed data produced by the Cardiovascular Health Study, begun in 1989, which has evaluated almost 6,000 older men and women. The subjects complete medical and cognitive tests, fill out questionnaires about their lives and physical activities and receive M.R.I. scans of their brains. Looking at 10 years of data from nearly 900 participants who were at least 65 upon entering the study, the researchers first determined who was cognitively impaired, based on their cognitive assessments. Next they estimated the number of calories burned through weekly exercise, based on the participants’ questionnaires.
The scans showed that the top quartile of active individuals proved to have substantially more gray matter, compared with their peers, in those parts of the brain related to memory and higher-level thinking. More gray matter, which consists mostly of neurons, is generally equated with greater brain health. At the same time, those whose physical activity increased over a five-year period — though these cases were few — showed notable increases in gray-matter volume in those same parts of their brains. And, perhaps most meaningful, people who had more gray matter correlated with physical activity also had 50 percent less risk five years laterof having experienced memory decline or of having developed Alzheimer’s.
“For the purposes of brain health, it looks like it’s a very good idea to stay as physically active as possible,” says Cyrus Raji, a senior radiology resident at U.C.L.A., who led the study. He points out that “physical activity” is an elastic term in this study: It includes walking, jogging and moderate cycling as well as gardening, ballroom dancing and other calorie-burning recreational pursuits. Dr. Raji said he hopes that further research might show whether this caloric expenditure is remodeling the brain, perhaps by reducing inflammation or vascular diseases.
The ideal amount and type of activity for staving off memory loss is unknown, he says, although even the most avid exercisers in this group were generally cycling or dancing only a few times a week. Still, the takeaway is that physical activity might change aging’s arc. “If we want to live a long time but also keep our memories, our basic selves, intact, keep moving,” Dr. Raji says.
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