On busy days, setting aside a large chunk of time to work out can feel unrealistic - even impossible. But new research suggests that a few short bursts of activity spread throughout the day could still improve aerobic fitness.
The small study, authored by a team of researchers from McMaster University and University of British Columbia Okanagan, was published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Dr. Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University and senior author of the study, told INSIDER that he and his team have been researching the benefits of short exercise bursts for more than a decade. But these types of studies often take place in lab settings using stationary bikes.
"We've been increasingly interested in translating this out of the lab and making this more practical and accessible to people," he said. "We thought, well, stair climbing is a great way to apply this. Many of us work in an office tower or live in apartment complexes, so stairs are readily available."
The researchers recruited 24 college students who were healthy but inactive, reporting less than one hour of structured exercise per week.
Half of the students were randomly assigned to a control group, while the other half took on a six-week regimen of exercise "snacks," or short bursts of physical activity. (The term "exercise snacks" was coined by another team of researchers in 2014, the authors wrote in the paper.)
This latter group performed three exercise snacks per day, three days out of the week. For each snack, they vigorously climbed stairs for 20 seconds.
Each bout of stair climbing was separated by one to four hours of recovery time. The snacks were also preceded by a short warmup (10 jumping jacks, 10 squats, and five lunges on each side) and followed by a one-minute walking cooldown.
"The practical analogy would be, people come into work in the morning and bound up a few flights of stairs. They do that again on a break or a lunch and they do it again before they leave for the day," Gibala said.
Before and after the experiment, the participants underwent a test to measure their cardiorespiratory fitness.
"[The test] reflects the ability of the heart, the blood vessels, and the lungs to deliver oxygen through the body, Gibala said. "We measure that using something called a maximal aerobic capacity test, or a VO2max test. That involves exercising on a bike at progressively higher workload ... until you're not able to go anymore. It provides a very accurate measure of the body's peak ability to use oxygen."
This measure of fitness is also important to health, Gibala added, because it's closely related to the risk of developing certain chronic illnesses like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
After the six-week exercise snack regimen, the stair climbers had improved their VO2max by about 5%, compared to the control group that stayed inactive.
"The size of the effect was small, but nonetheless we saw a measurable improvement," Gibala said.
He added that this very small experiment was a "proof of concept" study, and in the future, the researchers have plans to study exercise snacks in larger, longer-lasting studies with more diverse groups of participants. They also plan to look at how these bursts of movement might affect different markers of health, like blood pressure and blood sugar control.
For now, though, the takeaway message is simple.
"We're not at all suggesting that people should only do a minute of exercise or this is all you need," Gibala said. "Really it's a reminder to people that small bouts of activity can be effective. They add up over time. Exercise doesn't mean you have to change into spandex and go to the gym. It can be something as easy as stair climbing."
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