Exercise Snacking - A Survival Strategy for The Chair-Bound Office Worker

Exercise Snacking - A Survival Strategy for The Chair-Bound Office Worker

April 11, 2024

9 minutes

You wake up with a nagging hip, back, and shoulder pain. Getting out of bed is uncomfortable. Sitting on the toilet takes effort. You can barely touch your toes and dread the moment you have to tie your shoelaces or pick something off the ground. And getting in and out of the car? Impossible without using both of your arms.

And it’s only 9am. 

It might sound like the life of a frail elderly person, or a car accident victim. 

But this was the reality for my client Peter, an owner of a successful architect firm. He’d never been in an accident. And in his early 60s, he was still a far cry from what you’d consider a frail elderly.

Instead, he was facing the consequences of a lifetime spent working glued to his chair and desk.

Use it or lose it

Your body cares about two things more than anything else: staying alive and being efficient at it. Maintaining ranges of motion in your joints uses a lot of resources. And your body is constantly looking for opportunities to save energy.

When you don’t use the full range of a specific joint, the body thinks maintaining it is not important and gradually reduces the range of motion you have available. If you never go into a deep squat, over time, your body will reduce the ranges of motion in the joints that allow you to get into a squat. Until one day you start wondering how the toilet seat got so low.

And it’s not just your joints where this decline in function takes place. 

Your muscle mass, cardiovascular fitness, even the neural connections in your brain decrease when you’re not giving them the frequent physical stimulus they require. 

And it’s well established that the risk of obesity, chronic diseases and all-cause mortality go up with a sedentary lifestyle.

Common misconceptions about exercise

[[callout]]

  • It’s enough to hit your daily 10 000 steps

    Yes, getting in your daily steps is important for your health. But, the daily steps alone won’t be enough to improve and maintain your movement quality, joint ranges of motion, or muscle mass.

    Besides, most people rarely hit their daily ten thousand steps. 

    I know I don’t. And I live and breathe health and fitness. It’s the curse of the conveniences and demands of our modern life. It’s no longer enough to trust that incidental activity is enough to give us the daily physical activity we need to live a robust life. 
  • A daily workout is enough to undo all the sitting

    You likely spend seven to eight hours sitting at work. Add in a possible commute and time spent sitting at home, at a restaurant, or somewhere else. All up, your daily total for sitting is somewhere around 10 hours. And that’s a very conservative estimate.

    Don’t get me wrong, if you’re currently doing an hour of focused exercise each day, you’re probably fitter than most people. But that hour is only a fraction of the 10 hours spent sitting.

    One hour doesn’t give you enough physical stimulus to undo prolonged sitting. Not physically or mentally.

    The office environment is a modern invention. Our bodies have not evolved to be stationary for hours on end. We’ve evolved to move more often than just once a day.

[[/callout]]

What are exercise snacks?

Exercise snacks are the lowest hanging fruit to combat long hours of sedentary work and boost your physical and mental wellbeing. It’s about taking brief moments throughout your workday to get off the chair.

It’s about spending a few minutes each hour working on flexibility, elevating the heart rate or getting the blood pumping.

The benefits of exercise snacking

  1. It’s an effective way to ease pain and tension

    As the body reduces the ranges of motion you’re not using due to sitting, it will also strengthen and tighten the areas it deems important. This means that the front of the hip, the neck, and shoulders are especially vulnerable to tension.

    The best solution to tension related pain is frequent movement. 

    Besides the benefits of moving the joints, working the muscles and getting the blood flowing, the body also releases more endorphins. The body’s natural pain relievers.

  2. It’s the best way to improve posture and an effective habit for reducing stress

    Staying in a “perfect” upright posture for long bouts of sitting is challenging, if not impossible. Maintaining the ideal seated posture uses a great deal of energy. And as we’ve already covered, your body is constantly on the lookout for ways to make staying alive as energy efficient as possible. 

    Hence, most of us sit in the most energy efficient posture available, hunched forward. It’s not that a hunched posture is “bad”. 

    But our bodies are not meant to stay in any one position for hours on end. When we do years of slouching on the chair, all that tension created in sitting transfers to standing posture too. 

    Over time, we end up looking like Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame: flat low back, excessively rounded upper back and a forward head posture. 

    Deep focus on the computer screen often leads to shallow breathing and chronic breath holding.

    Suboptimal breathing has a negative effect on our strength and mobility, but even worse,  drives up anxiety and stress. Frequent exercise snacks are perhaps the simplest and most effective preventative measure you can take to avoid the Quasimodo posture and reduce the screen-induced poor breathing habits.

  3. It can help you reduce negative thoughts

    Exercise changes the levels of your stress hormones and increases the aforementioned endorphins. Even low levels of exercise can reduce negative thoughts. Including the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

    Plus, compared to a day of continuous sitting, exercise in general can help you sleep better at night. Which further contributes to a better mental health. 

  4. It can increase your productivity, energy, and concentration

    Even tiny bouts of exercise increase oxygen circulation, push the body to create more mitochondria, and release more exercise-induced hormones. All of which help to decrease fatigue and increase energy.

    Exercise stimulates the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, both of which are critical for concentration and maintaining mental clarity. And as regular exercise helps to reduce stress levels, it can help you better regulate your emotions and remain focused on tasks at hand. 

    If you’d like to know more about the science of short breaks for productivity, check our previous article on productivity here.

  5. Exercise reduces the risk of metabolic disease

    Several studies provide significant evidence on the benefits of breaking up sitting for reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver. 

    It’s still unclear which frequency, exercise type and intensity are the most effective for reducing these risks. Regardless, I strongly believe that any exercise you do to break up sitting is time well spent.

How to include exercise snacks into your day?

Start by spacing your exercise snacks with intervals that you feel 90-100% confident you can stick to. 

Aiming for two to five minutes of exercise for each hour spent sitting is a good place to start for most people. 

To get the most benefits from exercise snacking, gradually build up to five minutes every 30 minutes. 

Set a timer to remind you to get up and move. 

If your work day follows a predictable pattern, choose times when you know you’re less likely to have anything on which might discourage you from taking an exercise snack. Or, make space in your calendar to slot in a few minutes of exercise between meetings.

Alternate between moderate intensity and gentle activities

For the first exercise snack of the day, get your heart rate up with movements like jumping jacks, marching on the spot, heel kicks, squats, and push ups. 

For the second snack, focus on calmer activities. Such as stretching and gentle mobility work. Follow this pattern of moderate intensity and gentle activities for the rest of the day. 

This way you’ll cover the cardiovascular, muscular and mobility aspects of your physical wellbeing at least once every two hours. 

Try to avoid work related tasks when exercise snacking

Being glued to work might reduce some of the psychological benefits of exercise snacking. But, if you have to take a meeting anyway, try doing it while going for a walk, marching on the spot, or slowly walking up the stairs. Even stretching if you’re using a headset.

Unfortunately it’s not enough to just swap sitting to standing.

Alternating between sitting and standing is a great way to let the body have a break from being stuck in one position. But standing is still a low level activity and doesn’t give you the same benefits as exercise.

Overcoming common struggles when starting with exercise snacking

It can feel intimidating or even impossible to do exercises in the office

You might not be comfortable exercising in front of your coworkers. Especially if you’re the only one doing it. Plus, some office attires are less than ideal for exercising in public.

One way to overcome this is to focus on exercises and stretches that don’t draw too much attention. 

Maybe try a brisk walk up the stairs or do squats or marches on the spot in the bathroom cubicle. Awkward? Perhaps. But you’ll soon notice that the physical and mental benefits are worth it. And if you’re feeling really shy, start by staying seated and do a few upper body stretches. 

Or you could take the lead and invite others to join you.

Show initiative and organize the entire office to take part in exercise snacks. Use it to lift each other up, to boost wellbeing and overall morale. It takes a leader to show the way. Maybe that’s you?

Make it achievable

That’s the guiding principle for making exercise snacking into a habit. Start easy and only include exercises you know you can do and feel comfortable doing in your work environment.

Two minutes every hour is all you need to start.

Doing two minutes an hour over an eight hour workday five days a week adds up to 64 hours of movement over a 48 week work year. That’s over two and a half days of movement. With a relatively little effort.

“I was sure I was heading for a hip surgery”

Those words from Peter are up there as the most rewarding feedback I’ve ever heard from a client. He was convinced he’d need an operation for his hips. 

Because of our work together in the sessions and the mobility work he’s done on his own time, Peter’s been able to reclaim some of his mobility. But it’s taken a lot of hard work.

“I wish someone would’ve told me to get off the chair more often”

I wish that too. Peter’s mobility and overall movement would be at a much better place had he implemented something like exercise snacking throughout his career. After a certain age, it’s a challenge to undo 35+ years of sitting.

Still, Peter’s made great progress. Dodging hip surgery is worth a celebrtion. 

As our sitting and sedentary work increases, so do the negative impacts sitting has on our health

Pending some future biological or technological breakthrough, sedentary work is here to stay. Having frequent movement breaks throughout the day is the key to avoiding Quasimodo posture and reducing the sitting related tension, aches and pain.

Exercise snacks have shown to reduce the insulin spikes after a meal. And it might eventually play a big part in the fight against type 2 diabetes and other lifestyle related chronic diseases.

Moving your body has the power to increase your productivity, energy and focus. While also reducing stress and negative thoughts. 

And as new scientific studies emerge, we’re likely to see more benefits exercise snacks can have on your overall health wellbeing.

If you haven’t included exercise snacks into your work days yet, today’s a good day to start. 

Putting in a few minutes each hour allows you to maintain and even improve the mobility you already have. Instead of having to resort to a more time consuming and intense efforts to try to regain it later on in life.

Be kind to your body

  • Short breaks of mindfulness and movement exercises delivered to you at the right time
  • Keep your focus while staying mobile throughout the day
  • Access a library of professionally designed video & audio guided, low-impact movement exercises for all fitness levels