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Research suggests that short bursts of vigorous activity throughout the day can have a positive effect on your overall health — and save time too. Anfisa&friends/Stocksy
  • During the holiday rush, workouts can fall by the wayside due to a lack of time.
  • However, experts say that even short bursts of vigorous activity, also known as ‘exercise snacks,’ can help improve your health.
  • Even household chores or playing with your kids can turn into a workout if done correctly.

With the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it may feel like it’s nearly impossible to get in a good workout. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to forget about fitness altogether until the new year.

In fact, emerging evidence shows that shorter bursts of vigorous activity throughout the day can really add up when it comes to your health. Also, you don’t have to go to the gym or join a class in order for it to count as exercise.

For example, a 2019 study published in The Journal of Physiology found that workouts less than 15 minutes long, which included a warm-up, cool-down, and less than 5 minutes of vigorous exercise, were capable of improving blood sugar control as well as heart and lung function — changes which contribute to reducing cardiometabolic risk.

Additionally, a study published in January 2022 in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Review found that performing short bouts (1 minute or less) of vigorous exercise — which they referred to as “exercise snacks” — at intervals throughout the day was a “feasible, well-tolerated, and time-efficient approach” to improving heart and lung health and reducing the impact of a sedentary lifestyle on cardiometabolic health.

Finally, a study published in the December 2022 issue of Nature Medicine adds to these previous reports, finding that getting small amounts of vigorous nonexercise physical activity interspersed throughout your day is linked to a reduced risk of dying.

During the most recent study, self-proclaimed “non-exercisers” wore wrist trackers for seven days to measure how much vigorous physical activity they got in while going about their normal daily routine. Over 25,000 people from the UK Biobank were included.

The researchers also looked at their health data over a period of seven years.

During the follow-up, 852 people died. And, while cause-and-effect relationships couldn’t be determined, there was a statistical link between what they called VILPA (vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity) and people’s risk for dying from any cause, cancer, or cardiovascular disease. When people engaged in VILPA, they had a lower risk of dying.

People who engaged in three bouts of activity per day lasting about 1 or 2 minutes each, had a 38%-40% reduction in all-cause and cancer mortality risk as well as a 48%-49% reduction in risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, those whose VILPA duration was 4.4 minutes per day, had a 26-30% reduction in their risk for all-cause and cancer death while there was a 32-34% reduction in risk for death from cardiovascular disease.

What’s more, they had results similar to those who obtained their physical activity through intentional exercise, showing it’s not important how you get your exercise, just that you get it.

So, how do you know if the activity you’re doing is considered vigorous?

The answer is most likely simpler than you think.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during vigorous activity, you shouldn’t be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

Daniel H. Craighead, PhD, assistant research professor, Integrative Physiology of Aging Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is a member of the American Physiological Society, said that shorter, more vigorous exercise sessions work for a few reasons.

“First, we are learning that even short bouts of high-intensity exercise have health benefits, so exercise snacks can directly improve people’s health,” he said. “Second, we know prolonged sedentary time is bad for our health, so exercise snacks which are performed throughout the day are likely also beneficial by breaking up sedentary time.”

“Lastly and most importantly,” Craighead stressed, “exercise snacks can easily be fit into our lives.”

Craighead further noted that many people will avoid conventional exercise — like walking or running — because it requires a large time commitment.

However, when exercise can be taken in small bites of only a few minutes and doesn’t require any special equipment, it makes it easier for people to stick with it.

Dr. Colby M. Genrich, CAQSM, assistant professor, Sports Medicine Fellowship Program Director at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso – Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, said the first step in getting started is making sure that you are healthy enough for even short bouts of vigorous exercise.

“Those that have cardiovascular diagnoses, such as coronary artery disease, are advised to check with their physician before they start such physical activity,” said Genrich.

Once you’re ready to get started, Genrich said it’s easy to try quick workouts with no equipment at home. In fact, he pointed out that hundreds of 10-14 minute exercise routines can be found online.

For those who may be looking for more of a structured workout in the beginning, Yasi Ansari, MS, RDN, CSSD, who is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified specialist in sports dietetics, as well as the national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, encourages taking high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes as well.

“They’re fun, have a lot of energy, and also provide moments of rest/recovery between different training bouts,” she said.

Ansari further notes that HIIT is a time-effective exercise while, at the same time, supporting strength and increasing your strength and endurance.

However, it’s not necessary to take a class or even seek out a specific routine as long as you’re engaging in a type of vigorous exercise, according to Ansari.

Ansari said that there are several activities that are not considered traditional exercise but would still qualify as “vigorous activities” that you can do at home.

These include:

  • dancing around your house
  • shoveling snow
  • carrying groceries upstairs
  • walking up and down stairs
  • playing with your kids or grandkids
  • mowing your lawn

“Additionally, some moderate activities can also progress toward high-intensity activity depending on one’s effort during that session,” she explained.

However, above all else, Genrich says it’s important to find an activity you’ll enjoy doing for short bursts of time.

“Some of my patients love working outside and doing yard work. If they are medically able to do HIIT-like exercises, mowing a lawn or bagging leaves can be quite demanding if it’s done spritely,” Genrich said.

But regardless of what type of activity you choose, Genrich reiterated that “The beauty of these types of workouts is that they are brief.”