With gyms and recreation centers closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people found it difficult to remain active and establish new exercise routines. And with online work and learning more readily accepted, we’ve become even more sedentary.
A study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that people are sitting an additional 7.8 hours – 13.9% more per week – since the pandemic started. Data showed that the most active people prior to closures reduced exercise by 32% during the pandemic.
Even if you’ve maintained your morning 5k or weightlifting session through the pandemic, all the extra sitting during the day can counteract your gains. Reduced movement decreases bone and muscle strength, increases inflammation, and disrupts digestive and metabolic functions throughout the body.
Over time, leading a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of health complications such as:
After two years of routine disruption from the pandemic, resuming regular daily movement intervals might feel daunting. And diving back into a hardcore routine is a great way to acquire a sports injury, such as a pulled hamstring or sprained ankle.
But the good news is you don’t need to schedule hour-long workouts to ramp back up. Studies show that “movement snacks” – bite-sized spurts of exercise throughout the day – can be just as effective as lengthy sweat banquets. In addition to reducing your risk of health complications, consider these perks:
- Better sleep
- Bursts of mood-enhancing endorphins such as dopamine and serotonin
- Increased longevity
- Clearer thinking, learning, and judgment
How often to ‘snack’ on movement
So, how many movement snacks do you need a day, and what types of activities count?
UT Southwestern’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) specialists, also known as physiatrists, follow exercise guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Each week, we recommend aiming for:
- Two strength workouts
- At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous activity)
That equates to 30 minutes a day, five days a week, of activities such as brisk walking or doubles tennis. These sessions don’t have to be continuous time blocks. Take 5- to 10-minute “snack breaks” to do some quick walking, jogging, or squats – anything to get the heart rate up.
Quick, daily exercise ideas
Begin your day with a few minutes of light activity, such as stretching as soon as you get out of bed. This gets the blood flowing and can help you set a positive tone for the day. Then, work in some of these ideas to keep moving while completing your daily tasks.
Build in extra steps
If you work from home, modern innovations such as standing desks or laptop-compatible treadmills can help you get steps in during the workday. Movement snack breaks can help clear your mind and ease back pain related to workstation ergonomics.
Other ideas to increase active minutes in your day:
- Schedule walking meetings outdoors, on a treadmill, or even in place.
- Take part of your lunch break to walk every day. To kick it up a notch, try carrying a backpack with books or weights to increase resistance.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Park farther from the office entrance.
Join the resistance
You can find several free, 5- to 10-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts online. These short bursts of resistance exercise often do not require equipment and will get your heart rate up quickly. Many workouts include 30- to 60-second cardio segments and reps of strengthening exercises such as:
- Sit-ups or crunches
If you can’t do these exercises yet, work your way up. Simple equipment such as resistance bands lets you modify the movements as you progress to tougher exercises. With repetition, you’ll be installing a pull-up bar in your doorway in no time. If you aren’t sure where to start or if past injuries have decreased your mobility, talk with a PM&R specialist who can help you safely modify exercises to improve your strength and stamina.
Incorporate wearable tech
Fitness trackers or smartwatches can track your steps and heart rate, showing your activity and reminding you to move and hit your goals throughout the day. Many workplaces and health insurance companies are now offering incentives for members to stay active – check your plan to see if your daily activity could earn you rewards.
No device? No problem. Set a timer or alarm on your phone to periodically remind you to take a movement snack break. Use a notepad or a fitness app such as MapMyFitness to log your goals and progress. These data can help you and your doctor track your progress and inform a plan to manage or reduce your risk for common chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Find an activity you love
For starting or renewing an exercise routine, begin with workouts you already enjoy doing, such as walking the dog or doing squats. It’s easier to stick with exercises you enjoy than trying to force yourself to do activities that feel like work.
Approach each day with dedication to your goal. Map out your movement snack breaks – block time on your calendar, if necessary. Many people find it helpful to join a community of other active people for accountability. Online or in person, having someone check in on your progress or rely on you to keep moving can be motivating.
The first few weeks might be challenging, but you’ll soon find that you’ve built a new and enjoyable habit. Once your movement snacks are second nature, you’ll find yourself looking forward to the activity treats in your day.