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Is fitness snacking here to stay? This stress researcher vouches for it

Bite-sized exercise is a good workout – pandemic or not. But don’t adopt it as a way of life.

Is fitness snacking here to stay? This stress researcher vouches for it
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

In the case of coronavirus déjà vu, the first two months of 2022 brought with it travel bans, flight cancellations, a steep rise in cases, and a return to remote learning across the UAE. If you’re struggling to find the motivation to move? You’re not alone. But the situation isn’t entirely bleak – “fitness snacking,” dubbed one of the biggest fitness trends, is much to the relief of those pressed for time, returning to exercise after a long break, or getting started on their health journey. 

A 2021 study out of McMaster University found that while mental health issues like anxiety and depression prompted some exercise in a quest for stress relief, they proved to be a barrier to physical activity for others. And fitness snacking may be the solution. 

While the concept is hardly new – it echoes the patterns of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) – bite-sized exercise came into prominence as a result of global lockdowns, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and the subsequent boom in digital fitness. For the uninitiated, fitness snacking is defined as short bursts of movement interspersed throughout the day. It could be 20 seconds of bodyweight squats, 60 seconds of jumping jacks, climbing a few flights of stairs, or even dancing to Charlie Puth’s Light Switch to elevate your heart rate instead of working out for 45 or 60 minutes at a stretch. Admittedly, this approach feels more timely than ever, especially as many work from home.

Another 2021 study, published by the American College of Sports Medicine, revealed that cardiometabolic complications caused by prolonged sitting could be reduced by 15-30 seconds of hourly stair climbing. 

“I’m set in my ways: the pre-week scheduling, the session-specific preparation followed by the hour or two of exercise multiple days a week. However, from a professional standpoint, I acknowledge that this process takes a number of proactive decision-making steps, which present many overthinking moments about the upcoming exertion we feel obliged to do for our future selves. Therefore, alternative approaches to the monotony of aerobic exercise are very welcome!” says psychologist Dr. Christopher Bryan. A research associate at NYU Abu Dhabi, Bryan’s research spans stress psychology, sport psychology, and educational psychology. 

He explains that fitness snacking is more suited to some than others. “This approach to exercise can initially be considered valuable for those constrained by time, but more credibly those constrained by over-thinking, those who struggle to go from zero to hero when life is already demanding enough. Any life or fitness coach might tell you to write out all your hours of activities in a given week, leaving you amazed at how much free time you’ll have. However, the problem is whether you will want to exercise in any of those free hours. Fitness snacking allows us to move as and when we want to.”

As the evidence favoring high-intensity exercise’s physiological and cardiovascular benefits grows, Bryan says that the training model of supercompensation – the adaptive response of our bodies to a training program – requires a stimulus. “In many ways, high-intensity exercise of only 20 seconds can create an array of neuromuscular demands that aerobic exercise might not. This knowledge means we don’t have to wait for an optimal time of the day to move but can act on the peaks and pits of our bodies’ natural flow of energy throughout the day.” 

On a separate note. Are the likes of fitness apps, virtual trainers, and YouTube workout videos threatening the survival of brick-and-mortar gyms and boutique fitness studios worldwide? Not so much the case in the UAE, where solitary workouts in lockdown only reinforced our collective need for social connection. 

“In an expatriate society like ours, most continued to exercise within their fitness community – be it swim clubs doing their land training together over Zoom or workplaces staying connected with a company-sponsored instructor – even though the entire globe of fitness classes rested at our fingertips,” observes Bryan. “It was interesting to see how people valued the sense of community and identity that goes along with sport – not just the exercise. Fitness snacking is a tool to optimize your energy and headspace, but ensure it doesn’t replace the community away from home that the local sports industry flourishes on.”

Considering his research interests lie in multifactorial models of resilience that focus on how the environment helps individuals rebound and grow from life’s inevitable challenges, he emphasizes that building a positive experience with exercise – be it morsels of exercise – is key. “Throwing yourself into the deep end is not the best way to learn how to swim, and it certainly isn’t the best way to make your brain want to do it again. 

The pandemic has allowed many of us to exercise in a psychologically safe place – the comfort of our own homes. Moreover, less time commuting to work offers more headspace to break a sweat rather than motivate those heavy legs at the end of a workday. Similarly, fitness snacking may be the baby step towards building enough confidence that when the next opportunity for more daunting exercise comes along, you’ll be psychologically stronger.”

Interestingly, Bryan advises steering clear of contemplation for those looking to adopt fitness snacking as a way of life, explaining that it can trigger motivational depletion. “If I continually try to motivate myself to go for a run in the evening, and I repeat this multiple times throughout the day, those previous motivational efforts may ultimately impair subsequent self-control performance. When I make the final motivational push and put my shoes on, the impending run might feel like a marathon before I even begin. Instead, every time you ruminate about exercise or feel that your body might need it, start snacking. Six, 20, or 30 seconds – there’s no need to overthink it. You’ll barely break a sweat in 30 seconds and, if you’re ready again after work, go for it!”

Bonus: Activewear is optional.

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Samia Qaiyum is a Dubai-based editor specializing in travel and culture, contributing to the likes of Monocle, Kinfolk, Condé Nast Traveller, and OutThere. A textbook third culture kid with a perpetual thirst for adventure, she has lived in five countries and travelled to 34 others, racking up all sorts of weird and wonderful experiences along the way – just don’t ask her to define the word ‘home’. More