What Happened When I Tried “Exercise Snacking”

Bite-size workouts are pretty darn achievable — and fun.

by Shani Hillian
Exercise snacking has made me love my workout routine.
Getty Images/ LaylaBird

If you’re hoping this article is about nibbling on your favorite snack while exercising, I’m very sorry to disappoint you. To be fully transparent, it certainly was my first thought when I heard about it during a virtual training session with my trainer (aka my big brother), who suggested I give it a go after my repeated cancellations, rescheduling, and all-around lack of time management.

Being a new working mom, it’s been hard to get into a regular groove with my routine, although it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve risen at the crack of dawn before my 1-year-old daughter gets up, and I’ve tried exercising during her afternoon nap (which would usually be interrupted). Don’t even get me started on going to the gym: That’s a two-hour-long activity by the time you count commuting, changing your clothes, and trying to navigate the equipment — all of which have made me too frustrated to actually use my membership.

So out of desperation to stay active and keep my mental health in check, I gave exercise snacking a try — and it’s been a game-changer for my fitness, my schedule, and my overall physical and mental health. That’s because the practice is all about exerting intermittent bouts of movement throughout your day that can be broken up into 10- to 20-minute-long increments. Think of them as bite-size workouts — hence the “snacking” moniker.

You’re not missing out on the benefits you’d get out of a longer workout session, either. “Performing intermittent movements throughout your day can be just as beneficial as etching out prolonged, structured workouts,” says Ron M. Hillian, a certified trainer with an M.S. in exercise physiology. Research backs it up, too. A 2019 study found that doing short, roughly 12-minute-long intermittent physical movements — like swiftly or steadily climbing stairs a few times a day — effectively enhanced the cardiovascular fitness level of participants. For the most impactful results, these movements tend to be modalities that really get your heart rate up, such as HIIT, strength training, running, and brisk walking, though any health expert will tell you any sort of movement that breaks up bouts of prolonged sitting is beneficial.

Exercise snacking also has the ability to shift your mindset. A fitness regimen that’s broken down into smaller portions allows you to reframe the narrative of workouts feeling like a chore or a daunting beast to take on. Instead, they become something you genuinely look forward to and enjoy. (They’re breaks from whatever task’s at hand, after all!) Although I’m an athlete at heart who loves to move my body, I don’t always feel excited when I think about doing a 45-minute HIIT class. Now, I love to crush two 20-minute Tabata routines throughout my day because I know they’re effective and improve my physical strength while being short enough so I don’t feel overwhelmed.

I now actually look forward to working out.

If you don’t WFH and are immediately discounting exercise snacking as a viable option for you, hear me out. You don’t have to change your outfit every single time you do a mini workout, nor do you have to spend half your day showering off. Though my office happens to be my home right now, I do neither of those things. It all comes down to having the right attire: I wear sweat-wicking materials throughout both sessions, and I also don’t sweat enough during the first session to warrant a change of clothes or a shower. (Double showering can dry out your skin, BTW.) If I sweat enough on my face, I’ll rinse it with cool water to get rid of any perspiration. It’s back to work after that, followed by another cute little heart-pumping activity — and then a shower and change of clothes.

You also don’t have to head to the gym several times a day for 10-minute-long sessions. You can follow countless at-home workouts, and you can always pick a bodyweight-based routine if you don’t have any equipment. If you work in an office, Hillian suggests setting an alarm for every 1.5 to two hours to take a 10-minute break to either go for a stroll or perform a simple full-body stretching regimen. “If you can take a brisk walk during lunch or power through a 10- to 15-minute low-impact activity such as jumping rope, do that as it gets your heart rate going without feeling overworked,” he says. Personally, when I’m home and my daughter is awake and refuses to nap, I make it a family affair and allow her to join in on the fun with a 20-minute Zumba class. I’ve also been loving Heather Robertson’s YouTube channel — she has great HIIT routines that you can knock out in 12 minutes. They’re short, sweet, and effective.

Now, I actually look forward to working out, and I’ve leveled up my overall body strength and my mood. I guess it’s the next best thing to nibbling on chips and guac while on a stationary bike.