Short Exercise 'Snacks' Are Just as Healthy as a Full Workout. Here's Why

Research shows there are major benefits to physical activity, even if it's just a few minutes.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Reporter
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health technology, eye care, nutrition and finding new approaches to chronic health problems. When she's not reporting on health facts, she makes things up in screenplays and short fiction.
Expertise Public health, new wellness technology and health hacks that don't cost money Credentials
  • Added coconut oil to cheap coffee before keto made it cool.
Jessica Rendall
5 min read
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"Movement snack" is a catch-all term for any physical activity you do in really short bursts, say one to 10 minutes, as opposed to more traditional fitness routines that have you exercising for longer stretches. And while the exact benefit you'll get out of your movement snack depends on the activity, research shows breaking up your day with even the simplest movements have health benefits that can improve your mood, circulation, strength and more -- minus the additional minutes of blood, sweat and tears you'd expect. 

In some bad news to those who retreated to work-from-home jobs behind a computer screen over the last few years, sitting all day is pretty bad for your health. In some cases, being sedentary for too long even cancels out the hard-earned benefits of the exercise you're able to squeeze in at the end of the day. 

And the lack of movement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of even less energy to exercise. Haley Perlus, a sport and performance expert and coach based in Colorado, says that we're often tired from a long day of sitting because we haven't been maintaining or creating energy. That is, our blood hasn't been circulating or carrying oxygen throughout our bodies. 

But any movement, even brief, can help boost our energy and improve our mood.

"Getting out and moving your body is one of the greatest ways to recover your emotions," Perlus said.

With a few adjustments and an adaptation to the "movement snack" lifestyle, you can improve your blood sugar and blood pressure, as well as reap other benefits of a workout with just a pinch of effort. 

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Exercise snacks and movement snacks

Whether it's in snack length or long form, being physically active is a great thing. But of course, there are differences in intensity. While a movement snack can refer to any short-term physical activity, an "exercise snack" usually refers to more vigorous activity, like five minutes of jumping jacks or squats. Exercise counts "as long as your body is being challenged," Perlus said.

A small study published in PLOS One compared the effects of different exercise lengths -- a 10-minute commitment with one minute of intense exercise versus 50 minutes of continuous exercise. After 12 weeks, both types of exercise improved cardiometabolic health, indicating that you might get the same health benefits "despite a five-fold lower exercise volume and time commitment," the authors wrote.

Not wanting to break out into intense exercise in the middle of your work day -- even for 10 minutes -- is understandable. But not to fear: You can get significant health benefits from moving a lot less. A study published in 2019 that included about 8,000 participants aged 45 and up found that replacing 30 minutes of being sedentary with 30 minutes of less "exercise-y" types of movement daily, such as doing chores or walking, reduced the likelihood of death from all causes. 

And it gets even better (shorter): A very small study conducted by researchers at Columbia University found that just five minutes of walking every 30 minutes lowered blood pressure and better controlled blood sugar spikes after eating, both of which are markers of good health and are important to keep in check as they can influence the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease.

To get started with your movement snacking, Perlus suggests being active for at least one minute every hour. Stand up and pace around a few times between answering emails, roll your shoulders and your ankles, flex your legs -- anything to get the blood pumping. 

Beyond physical health, moving can even improve mental health symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise can help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety in some people by releasing endorphins and helping take your mind off worries. Maybe, a quick pace down the hall can disrupt your thoughts enough to the point where you can approach them with a clearer head. 

An older man taking a walk in the park, water bottle in hand
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Examples of movement snacks 

It sounds too simplistic, but simply walking every day can boost your immune function, curb your craving for sweets, improve your mood and more. And it's easy to make getting in a walking-flavored movement snack even fit your work routine or everyday routine.

Read more: 10 'Workouts' You're Probably Already Doing Every Day

Pace around while you brainstorm 

Pace-thinkers, rejoice! When you have the attention span of a fruit fly, nothing gets the creative juices flowing quite like pacing around your desk or down the hallway. Some research suggests walking can help clear your mind, potentially benefiting your work or creative pursuits. Now, you have an excuse to double the benefit and walk around the kitchen for a few minutes while you try to come up with a solution to your problem.

Drink water so you have to take bathroom breaks during your workday 

Two wellness birds, one health-hacked stone. Staying hydrated can improve your cognition, digestion and mental health, but it will also get you out of your chair and down the hall to the bathroom. Walking to the bathroom can be a fortified movement snack, if you will.

If you're in a movie marathon or a TikTok scroll bender, walk to the mini-mart for a snack 

If what separates you from the nearest convenience store is the interstate or piles of snow, don't do this. But the point is a lazy day meant only for rest doesn't need to be without movement snacks. Even if your break is just to the next room to heat something up in the microwave, take the time to walk around the dining room table while you wait for the microwave to be done.

Sit on the floor and stretch 

Stretching can improve your flexibility, get more blood flowing, help your joints, calm you down and release endorphins. To break up your stretching into movement snacks, peruse these routines for flexibility or this list of stretching do's and don'ts

A woman in a yellow shirt stretching her arms with a cat on her lap
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Exercise snacks for when you want to take bites out of your workout 

If you want to kick your movement snacks up a notch and take advantage of the time to build muscle or challenge your body, choose relatively simple exercises that don't require weights or crazy equipment. 

"I personally would recommend something like circuit training," Perlus said, including jumping jacks, wall squats and other beginner-level exercises that are easy to fall into. 

To reduce the harm of hours on end of sitting, you can also invest in a standing desk, or if you're feeling even more inspired and have the cash to spend, a treadmill desk.

Long story short about movement snacks 

Some things in the wellness sphere seem to come at a high cost -- a subscription to a meal plan, or the purchase of a cool watch with an ECG sensor, to name just two. But sometimes, real health benefits can come from something as simple as remembering to drink water or taking five 10-minute working breaks.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.