Exercise Snacking: Fun-Sized Fitness for Your Heart

Vanessa Raymond Fact Checked
Young woman in park playing with two dogs
© Bo Bo / Stocksy United

If you’re hoping that this article is about snacking while you exercise, sorry, but it’s not. Exercise snacking refers to “fun-sized” portions of exercise that fit into a day instead of what you may have traditionally thought of as legit exercise — like a boot camp session or CrossFit class.

Current exercise recommendations are 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week. But a recent study found that just a few minutes of stair climbing dispersed throughout the day had measurable impact on heart health.

For the study, each “exercise snack” involved going up a three-flight staircase one step at a time, as quickly as possible. Each “snack” was preceded by a warm-up of 10 jumping jacks, 10 air squats and five lunges on each side, and followed by a cool-down of 1 minute of level walking.

By performing this activity three times a day (with 1 to 4 hours of rest in-between) three days of the week over a six-week period, study participants improved their maximal oxygen uptake — a measurement of cardiovascular fitness.

What does exercise snacking really mean?

Patients often ask Hank Pelto, M.D., who practices at the UW Medicine Sports Medicine Center at Husky Stadium, about how much they should exercise. 

“My own gut reaction when I hear the recommended 150 minutes is, ‘Oh my gosh, that sounds like a big number. How am I going to fit all that in?’” says Pelto. “So I’m not surprised when my patients react the same way.”

So Pelto shares with his patients this vignette.

“It’s better to stand up from the chair than to stay sitting in the chair; it’s better to walk to the door than to stand up from the chair; and it’s better to go outside for a walk than to walk to the door,” says Pelto.

The point he’s making — even if you exercise for only a few minutes at a time, it makes a difference — is supported by this most recent study.

“It’s always better to get up and move,” says Pelto.

Does the kind of exercise you snack on matter?

The exercise performed by study participants was stair climbing, but Pelto says that stairs are not the only way to integrate small portions of exercise into your day.

“The thing about walking and stairs is that they are almost everywhere we go. They’re easy to fit into your day and that’s what’s good about them,” says Pelto.

That’s because having an activity that you enjoy doing and that is easy to integrate into your daily routine are two of the most important factors to making your exercise habit a success.

“Oftentimes people say they hate going to the gym or hate running. They have some preconceived idea of what exercise means,” says Pelto.

So if you hate stairs, don’t do them. Walk, bike, jump rope, plank, play tennis or do whatever else your heart desires.

“You’re more likely to do it in the first place and to continue doing it,” says Pelto. “And every little bit of exercise that you do counts.”