More of us than ever are working from home and ordering what we need online, wedding us ever more closely to our computers. And while Americans were sitting too much before, it’s only gotten worse.
While there’s nothing wrong with sitting per se, sitting in the same chair hour after hour actually changes body chemistry for the worse, increasing insulin resistance, blood sugar and triglycerides. Since these changes are linked with diseases like heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, dementia and cancer, and even to earlier death, sitting has been called “the new smoking.”
Many people try to counteract the negative effects of too much sitting with a daily walk or run, or going to the gym after work, but although these forms of exercise are helpful in reducing the negative effects of sitting (and have their own additional benefits), they are much less effective than getting up out of your chair every 15 minutes or so and moving around a bit.
Former NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos, PhD, who helped astronauts overcome the effects of living in a gravity-free environment, found that if you’re working at a sedentary job, changing levels every 15 minutes is enough to avoid sitting’s negative effects. Changing levels means moving against gravity, by moving from sitting to standing, lying down and getting back up, doing plies or squats, jumping, marching, bouncing, bending, reaching or playing with gravity by doing your own combination of movements, with or without music.
Given all this, the idea of “exercise snacks” is a timely one. As Tara Pope-Parker wrote in the New York Times recently, “An exercise “snack” is a short burst of movement you can do anywhere, anytime. You don’t even need to change your clothes. . . . [It] can last for 20 seconds, a minute or several minutes.”
Not only can exercise snacks get us out of our seats, they can replace stress eating, increase alertness and mental clarity, and, if you want to put some real energy into them, become a valid form of fitness exercise, increasing endurance and improving many aspects of health, including blood pressure and blood-sugar control.
Kinesiology professor Martin Gibala, PhD, author of The One Minute Workout, and other researchers at McMaster University in Canada have been exploring ways to utilize the acknowledged benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to maximize the benefits of short spurts of activity for an otherwise sedentary population.
In HIIT, you push yourself to the max for minutes or seconds, then recuperate for a few minutes before going at it again. (Check with your doctor before starting HIIT!)
The McMasters team found that sedentary women improved their fitness by 12% after six weeks of three 20-second bouts of stair climbing as fast as they could interspersed with several minutes of rest three days a week, and later that 24 healthy but inactive college students improved their fitness level by 5% with the same experiment except that the 20-second stair-climbing bouts were separated by one to four-hour intervals.
So there are many possible (and delicious?) exercise snacks you can choose from to break up sitting. What’s on your menu?
- Vernikos J. Sitting Kills, Moving Heals. Joanvernikos.com.
- Parker-Pope T. Let’s have an exercise snack! New York Times, May 18, 2021.
- Reynolds G. Even a 20-second exercise ‘snack’ can improve fitness. New York Times, January 23, 2019.
- Allison MK. Brief intense stair climbing improves cardiorespiratory fitness. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. February 2017; 49(2):298-307.
- Jenkins EM. Do stair climbing exercise “snacks” improve cardiorespiratory fitness? Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. June 2019;44(6).