Time for an “Exercise Snack”?

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Time for an "Exercise Snack”?

There’s no denying that physical activity is a key part of managing diabetes, along with other conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Plus, we all know that being active helps boost our mood and improves overall quality of life. But knowing and doing are two different things. For some of us, it’s having the drive to get up off the couch. For others, it’s pushing away that “all or nothing” attitude (meaning, if you can’t do the recommended 30 minutes at least five times weekly, you shouldn’t bother doing any at all). Maybe it’s time to think about and approach physical activity in a different way and dispel the old notions once and for all. Let’s make physical activity more appealing and even something to look forward to doing!

What are “exercise snacks”?

Do you fit snacks into your day? Depending on your schedule, your diabetes medications, and your preferences, maybe you have a mid-morning snack, a mid-afternoon snack, and/or a snack before you go to bed. While snacks often serve to help keep blood sugars more stable, they also serve as a little enjoyable break in the day when you can stop what you’re doing and take a few minutes to recharge.

When you think of a “snack,” you naturally think of food. But now there’s another type of snack to know about, and that’s an “exercise” snack. What is an exercise snack? No, it’s not grabbing a handful of crackers or an energy bar to chow down on while you’re on your daily walk. Rather, as Scott Lear, PhD, Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, says on his website, “Exercise snacking is the notion of breaking up your day with short bursts of exercise.” These snacks are intended to give you the same or similar benefits as a longer workout.

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Why do exercise snacks?

Many of us have only to look back over the last one and a half years to understand why physical activity has become even more important. The COVID-19 pandemic changed our daily lives in so many ways. An example of this change is being home much more than usual; that includes people who are quarantining, or who worked and maybe continue to work at home. Sitting for longer periods of time at your home office desk (or maybe the couch) may have helped you to be more productive, but it hasn’t done a lot of good when it comes to being active.

The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely put a dent in physical activity levels; not only has this been detrimental to health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, but it has led to higher level of mood disorders, according to a March 2021 article in the journal BMC Public Health. But even before COVID-19 hit, levels of physical activity among adults have been on the decline. The CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) state maps use combined data from 2015 through 2018 and show that all states and territories had more than 15% of adults who were physically inactive, with the estimate ranging from 17.3% to 47.7%. Clearly, we, as a nation, need to be moving more.

While the concept of exercise snacks really isn’t that new (researchers have been advising us to get up and move often during the day), the term and the research are. These exercise snacks are little bursts of physical activity that help give your heart and lungs a good workout, thereby improving cardiorespiratory fitness. What is cardiorespiratory fitness, or CRF? The American Heart Association defines it as, “The capacity of the circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to skeletal muscle mitochondria for energy production needed during physical activity.” In short, CRF measures how well the heart, lungs, and muscles perform when you’re doing physical activity. It’s essentially an indicator of how physically fit you are. When you’re physically fit, you:

  • Have more energy
  • Burn more calories, even when at rest
  • Have more lean body mass
  • Have a lower risk of illness and chronic disease, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes
  • Recover from illness and surgery faster
  • Feel better
  • Withstand stress better

Besides increasing fitness, exercise snacks may play a role in preventing type 2 diabetes. A study in the January 14, 2021 Journal of Applied Physiology, for example, showed that breaking up prolonged sitting with intermittent walking breaks lowered levels of blood glucose and insulin in healthy adults.

How do you become an exercise snacker?

Intrigued by how exercise snacks might work for you? Then you’ve come to the right place! Here are some suggestions to help you get started. But before you start, if this is your first foray into physical activity, it’s a good idea to check with your health care provider. They may recommend that you avoid certain types of activities, or get certain tests done, all for the sake of safety. Also, don’t forget to check your blood sugars often when you start or change your level of physical activity.

Get (exercise) snacking:

  • If you have a stationary bike, do five 4-second cycling sprints every hour during your workday.
  • Climb three flights of stairs, three times a day.
  • Go for a walk around the block two times a day.
  • Get up and dance to your favorite tunes a few times a day
  • March in place or walk around the room when you’re talking on the phone.
  • Pick an activity, such as jumping jacks, lunges, or squats, and do these for a minute once a day.
  • Sweep your floor or vacuum your rugs in one-minute bursts, several times a day.
  • Stand up and march in place every time a commercial comes on when you watch television.

Aim to do at least 20 seconds and up to 60 seconds for each exercise snack. It doesn’t matter so much what you do — the point is to get up and move. These mini workouts are not only great ways to get moving, but they can fill in for days when you aren’t able to be as active as you usually are. You’re fitting in activity when it works best for you. And you can still reap the benefits: Getting in a total of 160 seconds of exercise, in one study, led to an increase in metabolism of 43% and a decrease in triglycerides (a type of blood fat) of 31%.

Need some reminding and inspiration to get going with these exercise snacks? Set a timer on your smartphone each hour. Use an app like Stand Up! The Work Break Timer. You can also use these clever, printable activity cubes from Blue Zones – put them on your desk, kitchen counter, TV stand to remind you to move often.

Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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