Stuck at a Desk Most of the Day? Research Proves the Benefits of Quick Exercise Breaks

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Do Exercise Snacks Actually Improve Your Health?Justin Paget - Getty Images

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  • Extended hours of sedentary time can be detrimental to your health, but a new meta-analysis proves that even short bursts of movement can boost your wellbeing.

  • The benefits of exercise snacks show up the most in those who spend a lot of time sitting (even if you do one ride a day).

Maybe your day, every day, consists of largely uninterrupted sitting: commuting to work, being at a desk, going to meetings, commuting home, then lounging on the couch. If that’s the case, new research in Sports Medicine offers good news: Even short bursts of activity of a few minutes can help lower the known risks of sitting too much.

In the meta-analysis, researchers looked at 32 studies, which all included physically inactive but otherwise healthy adults. The “exercise snacks” were all achievable by study participants, such as walking for brief periods, and were done throughout a day rather than in a single session.

Researchers found that these brief bouts of movement may prompt people to work toward the recommended amount of daily activity, and could improve some health outcomes—for example, those who move more tend to be at lower risk for cardiovascular disease and most cancers, they concluded.

“Exercise snacks seem to be a feasible and safe way for people to become more physically active,” according to lead author Matthew Jones, Ph.D., senior lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at University of New South Wales Sydney in Australia.

“The health benefits of this approach are probably greatest in those who go from doing nothing to doing something, and they are likely most appealing to people who want to become more physically active but are not able or willing to do more traditional, continuous physical activity,” he told Bicycling.

This research and its findings adds to previous studies highlighting the advantages of peppering activity into everyday tasks, particularly for those with sedentary jobs.

For example, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests brief bouts of moderate-intensity movement can prompt the body to use more amino acids from meals and that, in turn, can help build muscle mass. Researchers looked at both activity levels and food intake, and found through blood samples and muscle biopsies that even two minutes of activity improved how the body processes sugars and makes amino acids.

Another study in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine looked at 53 normally sedentary people and assessed how moderate-intensity exercise in 10-minute bouts a few times per week improved health markers. They found these brief sessions boosted oxygen consumption and improved cardiovascular function.

Even sprinting up a flight of stairs instead of walking can have an effect on cardiorespiratory fitness, as a study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism noted. Researchers looked at 24 young, sedentary adults and assigned half to a “stair-climbing intervention” program, with the other half in a non-training control group. Those in the training program sprinted up a three-flight staircase three times a day, three times per week, for six weeks. At the end, they performed better in cycling tests compared to the control group.

One aspect of exercise snacks that seems to be lacking is on individuals with chronic disease, said Jones. He was surprised by the dearth of studies on this population, as well as on older adults in general, considering that exercise snacks could provide significant benefits like muscle strength, body composition, and aerobic fitness for those with chronic issues, he added.

An important caveat with all of these studies, including the most recent, is that these improvements were seen in participants who identified themselves as largely sedentary.

“For people who are already active, I think if there was any additional health or fitness benefits of incorporating exercise snacks they would likely be small,” said Jones. “This approach is mostly about getting people to the recommended levels of physical activity, so in those already doing this amount of activity or more the benefits might be modest.”

That said, where these exercise snacks could be useful is if you tend to spend large chunks of time sitting down, despite being active in scheduled exercise sessions, he added, or they could be utilized to get some resistance training into your everyday movement mix.

“If people do a lot of running or cycling, but little other muscle-strengthening exercise, then exercise snacks could be a good approach to incorporating this type of activity,” said Jones. So how about some goblet squats during your next call?

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