Have an exercise ‘snack’ and improve your health: kinesiology researchers

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This is part of Canadian Health and Wellness, a series in which Corus radio stations nationwide dig into health issues facing Canadians with the help of some of today’s most respected diet and exercise practitioners. Read the rest of the series here.

The name might sound unusual, but “exercise snacking” could be a more appealing option than you might think.

Researchers at Hamilton’s McMaster University and the University of British Columbia Okanagan have concluded that even short bouts of physical activity — for example, sprinting up a few flights of stairs — can have real health benefits.

According to McMaster’s chair of kinesiology, Martin Gibala, an exercise snack can have some of the same benefits — particularly for relatively inactive people — as a moderate workout at the gym.

“A lot of us understandably want to exercise to lose weight,” Gibala told 680 CJOB.

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“We care, obviously, about our appearance, but it’s really important to remember that regardless of the number on the scale, you can change or boost your cardio-respiratory fitness.”

LISTEN: Canadian Health and Wellness — exercise snacking

In 2019, Gibala and his fellow researchers put 12 people in a “snack group” and had each one sprint up three flights of stairs — about 60 steps — three times a day.

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They monitored the results and found that the members of the snack group had improved their heart health by five per cent over just six weeks.

“It’s the ability of your heart, your lungs, your blood vessels… to transport oxygen through the body,” said Gibala.

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“It’s a really important marker of your risk of dying from all causes and your risk of developing many diseases like cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.”

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Gibala said many Canadians are under the impression that working out is all about a formal process with a uniform and lots of rules.

“A lot of us have this notion that exercise is this thing we do at the gym after we change into spandex, and it takes an hour,” he said.

“If that’s what you do, that’s fantastic, but I think we need to remind people that there are many options to be active throughout the day.”

When the average Canadian spends between 8.4 and 9.6 hours per day sitting down, that mid-morning “snack” can have a big benefit.

Researchers say science backs up the benefit of taking the stairs.
Researchers say science backs up the benefit of taking the stairs. Lauren McNabb / Global News

University of Winnipeg instructor Gerren McDonald said he also believes in “exercise snacking,” noting that the rule should always be the more you do, the better.

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“You have a resting heart rate when you’re sitting, and your heart is beating somewhere around 70 beats per minute every minute of the day,” said McDonald.

“With a little bit of exercise, your system becomes a little bit stronger and better at moving around, and that resting heart rate drops to 68.

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“That’s two beats of wear and tear on your cardiovascular system every minute throughout the day.”

Current federal guidelines around the amount of physical activity needed by the average Canadian suggest about 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more is ideal.

READ MORE: Exercise comparable to caffeine in boosting working memory — study

Gibala said similar guidelines in the United States were recently changed to reflect that 10 minutes of continuous activity isn’t actually necessary in order for your exercise to “count” and that he expects changes to those guidelines in Canada as well — a change that could include more “snacking.”

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