You have a zillion things to accomplish today, and that means your favorite workout might be off the to-do list — or is it? Even if you have just a few minutes, doing one or two exercises can still bring benefits. Such “exercise snacks” can break up long stretches of sitting, boost energy, and may even improve long-term health.
More movement throughout the day tends to be good movement, says Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney in Australia.
“Most adults will benefit from embracing any opportunity in their daily routines to get exercise, even if it’s 30 seconds of sprinting up a flight of stairs, carrying their shopping bags instead of using a cart, or just walking at a faster pace,” he says. “It all adds up to improve overall level of fitness, as well as heart and lung function.”
A 2019 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism looked at the effect of “exercise snacks,” or short-duration, high-intensity activities. For this research, they asked a group of young adults (who all reported getting less than one hour of physical activity per week at the start of the study) to go up a flight of stairs quickly three times per day, three days a week for six weeks. They found that just that amount of fitness improved cardiorespiratory fitness.
Dr. Stamatakis coauthored a 2019 editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine outlining the many studies that show sporadic, incidental physical activity benefits health (and praising the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2018 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for dropping the previous requirement that physical activity should be done in bouts of 10 minutes or more to count toward weekly requirements).
The bottom line is that if you don’t have a chunk of time to devote to a 30-minute, 45-minute, or longer workout, it’s still worth getting a little sweat on. But what type of movement should you do to maximize that “exercise snack” time?
Here’s what four fitness professionals recommend.
1. Around-the-World Lunges
Particularly if you’ve been doing a lot of sitting lately, movement is key, but it’s also crucial to focus on moves that counteract that physical stagnation, says Rocky Snyder, CSCS, a personal trainer in Capitola, California.
“Your body adapts to any environment it’s placed in, and sitting causes muscles around the hips and lower back to shorten, while also causing other muscles to overwork and get inflamed,” he says. He recommends the “lunge matrix” (sometimes called “around-the-world lunges”).
These multidirectional lunges lengthen the hip, lower back, and leg muscles that remain dormant while sitting and improve range of motion, Snyder says.
How to do it
- Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Take a large step forward with your left foot. Bend both knees to about 90 degrees, making sure that your weight is evenly distributed between both legs. Your front knee should be directly over your ankle (and not extended past it). That is your front lunge. Step your left foot back to center.
- Step the left foot out to the left side and bend the left knee (kneecap facing forward). Keep the right leg extended straight. That’s your side lunge. Step your left foot back to center.
- Next step your left foot behind you so now your right leg is in front. That’s your rear lunge. Return left leg to starting position.
- Now repeat the sequence in the opposite direction using the right leg: Right foot steps back into a rear lunge, then out to a side lunge on the right, and then forward to front lunge on the right.
Snyder recommends one set of these lunges if you have only a minute but more if you have more time.
Whether you’re waiting for your coffee to finish brewing, brushing your teeth, or even reading your email, you have time to bust out a few bodyweight squats.
The squat is a fundamental, compound movement that is a go-to for trainers everywhere, says Kila Duncan, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)–certified personal trainer based in Spring, Texas. That’s not just because it’s highly efficient for building lower-body strength — although it can do that — but also because it gives you greater mobility in everyday life, she says.
“You go to sit down, or you stand up, and you’re doing a squat,” she adds. “The squat is crucial to functional movement, inside or outside the gym.”
How to do it
- Start standing with feet about hip-distance apart.
- Engage your core muscles as you begin pressing your hips back as if you’re about to sit in a chair (increasingly shifting pressure onto your heels and keeping them flat on the floor), lowering as far as you are able.
- Focus on keeping your shoulders pulled back and your back straight.
- Keep knees in line with toes.
- Press into your feet and straighten to come back up. (You should feel the glute and other leg muscles engage.)
If you’ve got only a minute, try doing 10 squats. You can also do five slowly and with control, which is helpful if you’re trying to work on your form, Duncan says.
If you think five minutes isn’t long enough to feel the effects of exercise, try holding a plank pose for that long.
Considered another foundational exercise, planks are simply holding the position at the top of a pushup, and they can be a major workout for your shoulders, core muscles, and willpower. Plus, they’re easy to modify, since you can turn them into burpees, mountain climbers, a side plank, plank jacks, and more.
“Plank pose is also great for the back,” says Carol Mack, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist and trainer at Cle Sports PT & Performance based in Cleveland. “It causes the stabilizing muscles in the core to activate, which helps support the spine.”
How to do it
- Start in the top of a push-up position, making sure your shoulders are above your wrists.
- Engage your leg muscles, pushing back through your heels, while also engaging your core muscles.
- Hold the position, making sure your shoulders don’t collapse inward and your back doesn’t sag down. You want to be in as much of a straight line as possible.
A plank gets harder the longer you stay in the hold. Start with 15 to 20 seconds and work your way up to staying in the position longer.
4. Bear Crawls
One of the best ways to shake up your routine? Hit the floor. Doing movements like bear crawls taps into your childlike desire to play, according to Boulder, Colorado–based Mike Fitch, a NASM-certified personal trainer and creator of Animal Flow, a bodyweight movement program.
“Adults have a tendency to move in the same plane of motion, even with exercise,” he says. “But if you watch kids playing, they’re all over the place with squatting, crawling, twisting, and sprinting. Our bodies love that variability.”
Moving in new ways, much like trying different activities in general, fires up the brain as much as the body, Fitch adds. So if you have only a few minutes and want a major way to energize that mind-body connection, get a little wild.
How to do it
- Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, making sure your shoulders are above your wrists and your knees are in line with your hips.
- Press into your hands and raise your knees so they’re hovering just above the floor.
- Move one hand and the opposite foot forward an equal distance (about 12 to 16 inches), keeping the rest of the body low to the floor in the same tabletop position.
- Now do the same movement, but with the opposite hand and foot moving forward.
- Make sure to keep your back flat and look down at the floor to keep your neck in line with your spine.
- Keep alternating sides to “crawl” forward; you can also reverse the movement to crawl backward.
With this move, Fitch says, you can go for time or distance. For example, try crawling down the hallway in your house forward and then back if you have only a few minutes.