Exercise snacking: how short bursts of activity could cut your cancer risk

Man exercising in a warehouse

Exercise snacking is a new approach to physical activity, which focuses on short bursts a couple of times a day, rather than, say, going on a run or heading to the gym for an hour. And in our increasingly busy lives, exercise snacking – which can be done at home, at work or in a public space like a park – is proving popular. You don’t even have to change your clothes!

Just as you might grab a snack like a biscuit, an exercise ‘snack’ involves activity lasting for only seconds or several minutes.

We know that being more active lowers our risk of many diseases, including cancer. It also provides many benefits to our mental wellbeing – those endorphins that get released have a rapid impact on how you feel. Getting this ‘boost’ throughout the day is a great way to make us feel good!

In the UK, the recommendations are that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, like brisk walking or gardening (that gets you a bit breathless), or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, such as running or fast dancing.

Activity of any duration is good for our health – even if you’ve only got a few minutes spare, you can still use that towards these targets.

Think little and often

However, for many of us finding time to do 150 minutes can feel like a real challenge. Wouldn’t it be ideal if we could just do a few minutes of activity throughout the day instead?

When we break up exercise into smaller chunks, it makes it more manageable and we know that a lack of time is a barrier to people getting more active. This is where the benefits of exercise snacking come in – it alleviates the need for putting time aside for structured exercise as it can be done as part of daily living.

Research has shown that doing multiple, short bursts of exercise during the day could match the health and fitness benefits of one long session. Exercise snacks have also been shown to control blood sugar better than a single, continuous workout.

An important added benefit of exercise snacks is that they can naturally break up periods of prolonged sitting – we know that sitting for long periods can damage our health.

To maximise the benefits of exercise snacking, aim to pick up the pace of the activities you do.

Exercise snacking in daily life

Need some inspiration for incorporating exercise snacking into your day?

  • Get some steps in while you’re on the phone. A work or social call is a great time to add some activity to your day – just get up and start walking around as you talk.
  • Try breaking up the day with a couple of regular brisk walks, even for just a few minutes at a time.
    You don’t even need to leave the home or office – you could walk around the office, or take a few laps of your house or garden.
  • For something more intense, climb the stairs. If you have stairs in your home or office, try going up and down a couple of times, or, if commuting, try taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator, or walk briskly up the escalator.
  • Set a reminder on your phone or laptop, and aim to do something every couple of hours. You could put on a song you love and dance for a few minutes.
  • Or perhaps do one minute of squats, star jumps, or jogging on the spot – for a real fitness boost, try doing all three with a one-minute rest in between.

Staying active at home or in the office

Do each exercise below with a 30-second rest between them, and work at a pace you feel comfortable with. You can adapt these ‘snacks’ for different ages and abilities.

  • Chair squats. Put your feet about hip-width apart and squat down slowly towards the chair. Use your arms to counterbalance. Keep going for 30–60 seconds.
  • Wall push-ups. Stand facing the wall with your hands flat against the surface and your feet slightly further away. Keeping your body straight from head to heel, slowly lower yourself towards the wall, and then push away against the wall as you straighten your arms. Then return to your original position and repeat. Keep going for 30–60 seconds.
  • Standing bicycle crunches. Put your hands on your temple. March on the spot and bring each elbow to the opposite knee in turn. Twist your upper body and crunch your abdominal muscles as you do so. Keep going for 30–60 seconds.
  • Stand and box. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keep your abdominal muscles tight, and box. Keep going for 30–60 seconds.
  • Wall planks. Place your forearms against the wall, with your feet further away and make your body straight from head to heel. If this feels too easy, move your feet further away. Too hard? Bring your feet closer to the wall. You can also do this on the floor. Aim to hold this pose for 30–60 seconds.

So, if you’re short on time, exercise snacking could be the solution.

> For more tips and exercises to try, download or order our free guide Living an active life