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The importance of exercise "snacks."

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

I wake up before the birds are chirping on most mornings, so it’s common that the skies are still dark as night when I get myself out of bed to start my day. I LOVE my mornings. Many mornings I am so excited to get started, I bounce out of bed between 4:00-5:00 a.m. just to squeeze in extra “morning time.” I know this sounds foreign to some of you, but it’s true! My mornings are my time to be in my own head, my own space, brainstorm, work things out, or simply catch up while a many of those on the east coast are sleeping. It’s so quiet and I LOVE quiet!

I am a creature of habit. Many of my mornings and evenings follow a ritual and are nearly carbon copies of each other. That’s how I like it. I love a schedule and feel at my optimum physical and emotional health when I follow one. So, this past Monday morning was very much like many of them. Except it wasn’t.

The pitter patter of rain against the windows made it a little more difficult to “bounce” out of bed. What I really wanted to do was to pull the blankets over my head and catch some more zzzzzz’s! I was feeling exceptionally unmotivated.

I managed to put on my workout clothes, make my way downstairs, brew my coffee, and shuffle into my office. The pups are really good at letting me have my morning time now that they are older, so they laid quietly in their crates as I went through my morning ritual. Truthfully, Zoey doesn’t like moving until she can see the light of day and now that Maxwell can hold out for his potty time, he knows our morning walk is coming around 7:00 am, so he practices patience (on most days). As you can see in a snapshot from their pet cam (below), they are content as I go about my business.

Along with my lack of Monday morning zest, I had no motivation for my morning run. This is pretty rare as I love my morning runs and overall, my workouts are very much part of my daily routines-like eating a meal! Nowadays when my mojo feels off, I make a deal with myself. I give myself 10-15 minutes to get into my flow and if that doesn’t happen? I don’t force it and my activity turns into walking, or I stop all together.

On a side note, I enjoy walking and walk for small blocks of time throughout

almost every day, including my “rest and recovery” days. I have never had a day when I didn’t want to walk. Something about walking, calms me and puts my body in a parasympathetic state (a rest & digest state). It’s also very common once I get into a vigorous workout, such as running, my momentum gets going and I don’t want to stop after 15 minutes!

As a certified personal trainer and clinical exercise physiologist, I understand the importance of regular exercise and physical activity. Regular physical activity helps prevent and manage a variety of health problems such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, depression, anxiety, dementia, and even some types of cancer. The health benefits of exercise are indisputable, but there is still some question about the “perfect dose” to promote optimal health and wellbeing.

The American Heart Association (AHA) Recommendations for Physical Activity states adults should get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week (or a combination of both), preferably spread throughout the week. For added health benefits, including weight loss, AHA recommends 300 minutes of aerobic activity spread throughout the week. Moderate-to high intensity muscle strengthening activity (like resistance or weight training) is recommended at least twice a week.

If these numbers seem daunting to hit, I get it! Some days I have trouble squeezing it all in too. And as mentioned, even though some form of movement is part of my daily routine, sometimes I am simply unmotivated to exercise!

What many of you may not realize, is that small doses of exercise DO have an impact on your health and wellbeing. Fifteen minutes, even two minutes have been shown to have an impact on health. Let’s look at the pure physiology of what happens when we move. Bursts of physical activity and movement release energy and endorphins. These bursts, multiple times a day, improve circulation and heart health, build stronger muscles and bones, boost mood and sharpen thinking.

Don’t take my word for it, let’s look at some of the science.

Exercise is Medicine at any dose

Lack of time is reported as one of the most common barriers to exercise, but for those that are “too busy”, even 8-15 minutes is doable!

According to Drs. Eijsvogels and Thompson, who reviewed several studies and published their findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that as little as 15 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise, and only 8 minutes a day of vigorous-intensity exercise reduced the risk of death. The active participants were estimated to have a 3-year longer life expectancy compared with their inactive peers. Also, every additional 15 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity was associated with a 4% further reduction of all-cause mortality (death) over 13 years (2015).

A study published in the Journal of Applied, Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism suggests that even short, intense bursts of exercise can offer benefits for cardiovascular health.

In this study, healthy but sedentary young adults climbed three flights of stairs, three times a day, three days a week, for six weeks. The subjects warmed up and cooled down after and were told to climb the stairs as fast and safely as they could, one step at a time.

After six weeks, the participants saw their aerobic fitness improve by 5% and showed 12 % more power during a cycling test as the results of their stair climbing exercise “snacks” (Jenkins, Nairn, Skelly, Little, & Gibala, 2019.)

These effects aren’t just found among young people. A study released in 2019 by the Journal of Hypertension found that in a small group of sedentary, overweight or obese adults between 55 and 80 years old, just 30 minutes of walking in the morning kept blood pressure lower, on average, throughout the day. The effect was more pronounced in women when they also took short 3-minute walking breaks every half-hour (Wheeler et al., 2019).

In another recent study on the benefits of small doses of physical activity, researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine found that people who got up and performed light-intensity movement for at least two minutes for every hour of sitting had a 33% lower risk of dying. The researchers consider “light-intensity” exercise to include activities such as: walking around the office, taking the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator, or taking a short walk on a coffee break (Beddhu, Wei, Marcus, Chonchol, & Greene, 2015).

Let’s look at larger data analyses…

A systematic review and meta-analysis conducted by researcher Dr. Hupin, within the Department of Clinical and Exercise Physiology of University Hospital of St-Etienne, looked at 835 relevant studies, of which nine were suited for analysis. These studies involved a total of 122, 417 participants, monitored for an average of around 10 years, which time 18,122 died.

The findings of Hupin’s study found a negative correlation between a person’s level of physical activity and his or her risk of “all cause” death (meaning one variable in a study increases as the other decreases and visa versa). Hupin emphasized that physical activity reduces mortality rates in a “dose-dependent” way, but even low levels (well below the current public health recommendations) of exercise have a protective effect. This data analysis showed, a dose of vigorous physical activity below current recommendations reduced mortality in older adults by 22%. Additionally, mortality was 28% lower in older adults who followed the current recommendations of 150 minutes of physical activity per week and 35% lower in those who exceeded the current recommended range. In conclusion, the author encourages general practitioners, to relay the message to their patients, “even a little is good, and more may be better” (Hupin et al. 2015).

Another study aimed to examine the relationship between physical activity and happiness through a systematic review of the existing literature. Out of 1142 retrieved studies, fifteen observational studies and eight intervention studies (six randomized controlled trials and two non-randomized trials) were included for analysis. All observational studies reported a positive association between physical activity and happiness (meaning as physical activity increased, happiness did too). As little as 10-minutes of physical activity per week or 1 day of exercise per week resulted in increased levels of happiness.

The randomized controlled trials mostly focused on older adults and cancer survivors and suggested small amounts of aerobic exercise and stretching/balancing exercise were effective in improving happiness (Zhang & Chen, 2018).

What does this mean? Am I saying don’t worry about hitting the physical activity guidelines?

NO. I am a huge proponent of moving your body and believe you should move as much as you can. I believe in it so much that I have made promoting exercise into a career, and my life’s work. I think it is unnatural to be so sedentary and inactive. We were made to move our bodies!

Here’s the thing. After many years of working with clients, I have witnessed the “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to fitness. There is an underestimation of the importance of bite size chunks of movement throughout the day. Of course, 30 minutes of exercise may reap more health benefits than 10 minutes, but 10 minutes reaps more benefit than none! Are you following me?

Plus, the more you get the little “snacks” of movement in your day, the more likely you are to make them a habit. Little incremental shifts in our healthy habits over time will produce large results. I like to refer to one of my favorite authors James Clear when I think of small changes equating to big results over time.

“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones become strikingly apparent.”

My main point overall, is try not to worry about the amount of time each day and just get some kind of movement in! Put aside the “all or nothing” thinking, work with your schedule, do something you enjoy doing and if you don’t know what that is, try different things! Get those exercise “snacks” in through your day and if you have to multitask, then start squatting while you brush your teeth, hold plank or do sit ups when a commercial comes on, walk (in a safe place) while you take your business call, set a timer to get up out of your chair and stretch every hour, or take a long way to the office water cooler (if you’re working from home climb stairs or take a short walk outside around the house). I could go on with ideas, so if you can’t think of anything for your situation, feel free to PM me and I can help you!

Have a great day and happy squatting!

References for exercise snacks
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Stephanie Prather
Stephanie Prather
Oct 23, 2020

ML, yes it certainly is a journey and takes time to get a fitness regime going. Even then the best intentions may not always work out! Exercise “snacks” act the same as our food snacks except they don’t increase our waistline 😉 You should check out the book from James Clear. It’s a game changer for sure!


I love this concept of exercise "snacks" and also the analogy to compound interest. It really does add up over time. I think it is important to realize you need patience, as fitness doesn't come over night.


Stephanie Prather
Stephanie Prather
Oct 16, 2020

You’re welcome and thank you for reading! I love the multitasking and using the watch. The technology can certainly help us in many ways!


Lorraine Goodman
Lorraine Goodman
Oct 16, 2020

I like to do calf raises while brushing my teeth. And my Apple Watch reminds me to stand so I do the steps for 5-6 flights when it’s time to stand. These are all great ideas! Thank you!

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