Walking as fitness snacking

Fitness challenge: “I tried 2 weeks of ‘fitness snacking’ – and it repaired my relationship with exercise”

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After nearly two years of health struggles that saw her exercise regime crumple, writer Samia Qaiyum started 2022 with a week of micro-workouts. She explains why she’s officially a believer in bite-sized exercise.

Raise your hand if you’re an ‘all-or-nothing’ kind of person. I definitely am, and it has long impacted my ability to let people in, maintain any semblance of work-life balance, and make peace with the proverbial grey area.

Like so many people across the planet, 2020 wreaked havoc on both my physical and mental health, owing to the stress of losing my job of four years and wrapping up the year with an insulin resistance diagnosis. The fact that I found myself freelancing at a time when countless publications were going bust and budget cuts were rampant did nothing to help, and neither did my extremist behaviour – yo-yoing between restrictive and binge eating, and between over-exercising and abject inactivity all through 2021. 

Interestingly, it’s was during Twixmas – that slow and somewhat strange time period between Christmas and the new year – that I chose to get a head start on my new year’s resolution: the all-or-nothing mentality had to go. As someone who refused to rely on medication to keep my blood sugar levels in check, my health depended on it.

I started slowly, walking to my neighbourhood Starbucks plugged into a podcast even if it amounted to nothing in terms of the recommended daily step count. Day two entailed the same walk, followed by 11 minutes of yoga-pilates in the evening. In the days that followed, I tried a 14-minute HIIT session, walked faster through my local park and tried a surprisingly challenging four-minute arm workout, followed by a brief yin yoga flow. And during each day’s activity, I focused on moving without any real goal in mind.

By the end of the week, I was able to make it through a 20-minute arms and ab workout on YouTube without taking a break – albeit with 2kg weights. Cooling down alongside Astrid Swan from Barry’s Bootcamp, I felt like I was finally on the path to feeling like my old, healthy self. As the week drew to a close, I realised that my mid-morning walks and evening stints of exercise forced me away from my laptop, thereby preventing long stretches of sitting at a desk or typing sprawled across my bed – and all the health risks that come with it. Little did I know that there was a label for my last-ditch attempt to get moving on a regular basis: fitness snacking. 

Fitness snacking means doing short bursts of movement spread over the course of the day (think: a wall sit while taking a work call, 30 seconds of jump rope, climbing three flights of stairs instead of taking the lift, going for a 15-minute walk, or dancing through Lizzo’s Truth Hurts) as opposed to sweating it out for 45 or 60 minutes at a stretch. This approach to fitness feels more timely than ever, especially as so many of us started 2022 working from home again. And given how accessible it is for people of all fitness experiences and time limits, it’s no wonder that fitness snacking has won the praise of experts worldwide.

A study carried out by a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University found that three minutes of intense intermittent exercise per week within a total time commitment of 30 minutes is as effective as 150 weekly minutes of moderate-intensity continuous training for increasing insulin sensitivity and cardiorespiratory fitness in previously inactive men. And it’s reassuring to know that “exercise accumulated in several short bouts has similar effects as one continuous bout with regard to aerobic fitness” in previously unfit subjects, accordingly to an earlier study published in the Journal Of The American College of Nutrition.  

I’ll confess that for an introvert on a freelancer salary, half the appeal of fitness snacking is not having to leave the house and fork out for a monthly gym membership fee. Admittedly, I powered through last night’s 14-minute yoga sculpt session wearing a sports bra, an oversized T-shirt and not much else – a far cry from the overpriced Lululemon sets that I wore to the yoga studio in my pre-pandemic life. But did my outfit matter? Not at all. 

And then there’s the psychological side of these morsels of movement: just making it to the one-week and then the 10-day mark was both exhilarating and encouraging. Those little daily doses of endorphins were just the cherry on top. 

“One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is thinking that they need to exercise in a certain way to be fit,” says sport and exercise psychology consultant Hannah Winter, emphasising that there are endless ways in which people can bring movement into their day-to-day lives. “I often hear people say that they ‘should go to the gym’ or ‘should run’ – only to find out they hate the gym or running. One of the most important things is to find the type of exercise you enjoy. If an individual found that short bursts of exercise were something they enjoyed and could stick to, I would be supportive.”

Part of Winter’s role involves assisting individuals with their mindset in order to achieve their goals, so she’s also on the ‘start small’ bandwagon. “I would encourage anyone getting started on their health journey or returning to exercise after a long time to start with small, realistic goals.” The objective, she explains, should be to build some simple keystone habits that eventually become routine and form a solid foundation from which to build upon. The mind, however, can throw barriers in our way.

“Thoughts like ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I am not an exerciser’ can be overwhelming, but breaking fitness down into manageable objectives can make it more achievable,” she tells Stylist. “And once you start seeing that you can do it, you realise that your mental narrative isn’t true. The reality is that achieving any goal comes from small daily actions.”

Incidentally, Winter’s clients include not only elite athletes, coaches, and personal trainers, but also recreational exercisers of all abilities. Explaining who would benefit most from this approach, she says: “If someone was to have work, family or caring responsibilities that prevented them from fitting longer forms of exercise into their day, fitness snacking could be a great fit. It also could be a good option for someone who is lacking motivation or has struggled to maintain consistent exercise habits.” 

Today, two weeks into fitness snacking, I’m pleased to report that daily movement feels routine. Insomnia is no longer an issue, my digestion has improved, I’m less irritable and my sugar cravings have subsided. To describe brief spurts of exercise as life-changing may sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Truth be told, I used to wonder if my relationship with exercise was irreparable; fitness snacking has proved me wrong.

How to start fitness snacking

Hannah Winter shares her top tips for making fitness snacking a long-term habit.

Break your fitness goals down into small, manageable tasks

Start smaller than you think, and make the frequency and length of time realistic for you to do on any kind of day. Often, people have high expectations of themselves and are unwilling to give themselves credit for completing small tasks. It’s easy to exercise when you feel motivated, but what about the days when you are lacking motivation? What’s realistic to do on those days? Setting up a routine that is achievable across the spectrum of your life will lead to more consistency and less ‘all or nothing’ exercise behaviour.

Consider the obstacles

When setting your goals for fitness snacking, think about what could get in your way and make a plan for how you will respond to these obstacles. They could be mental (eg thinking ‘I can’t do this’) or physical (eg getting a bad night’s sleep). I work with people to create ‘if-then plans’, which involves mapping out how you will respond to any challenges that come your way. If ____ happens, then I will do this____. Deciding this in advance means you have a strategy for how you will respond when faced with adversity.

What are your bad habits?

Beyond just thinking about embedding fitness snacking into your day, consider if you have any problematic habits. For example, do you regularly go to bed too late, which then results in you feeling tired and unmotivated to exercise? These areas are just as important to address.

Make it as easy as possible for you to do the exercise

When looking to create new exercise habits, you want to create the path of least resistance and increase the chance you will do the desired behaviour. For example, it could be as simple as laying out your exercise mat and exercise clothes when you go to bed so it’s ready when you wake up.

Write a list of facilitators

Jot down anything in your life that can be used to facilitate your exercise goals. Then write a list of inhibitors – anything that has the potential to hinder your journey. Take steps towards tipping the balance in favour of more facilitators and less inhibitors. Start with small steps (for example, by choosing which inhibitor is the easiest to fix and which facilitator is easiest to do). 

For more fitness tips, check out the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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