No, I’m not talking about yummy food you can eat when training! What I’m talking about is bite-sized exercise workouts. And these can be a great option when you can’t fit in a whole workout.
Is the holiday season playing havoc with your training? Are you time poor? Does the thought of doing a full workout feel overwhelming? Too many balls in the air with no time for yourself? Have you lost your mojo because you don’t have a goal to train for but you also don’t want to lose all the benefits of your previous training? Or do you sit most of the day in a sedentary job? If this sounds like you, don’t give up! I may have a solution for you.
So you decided to start training for that big day hike or your first 5km run. Or a half/marathon. Or a multiday hike. It’s such an exciting time! Motivation and commitment is running at an all time high. You want to dedicate every spare moment training towards your goal. Let’s do this!
But now you’re a few weeks or months into it and although you’re still committed to your training, sometimes other things in your life start to build up to the point that your training starts to suffer. You're feeling tired. Somedays, absolutely exhausted from what life is throwing your way. You might miss a workout here and there. Nothing wrong with that at all! Life happens and, let’s face it, it’s what you do consistently over time that matters, not what happens over the course of one week. BUT, when that one week becomes two, when you’re starting to view your workouts as a chore and dread them or you’re simply too exhausted to contemplate anything bar resting when you get 5 minutes to yourself, what do you do?
Firstly, let me say, you are not alone. This is more common than you think. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. You can still train towards your goal through these tough times without it feeling like a drag.
This is where exercise snacking comes in. You may have heard the term ‘micro-dosing’ bandied around. It’s a similar concept to that. ‘Exercise snacking’ might not be the best approach long-term but it’s definitely a great interim measure to get you through those blah periods. I’ve been playing around with this for a few weeks now. Let me share with you my experience of it.
I don’t currently have any big hikes planned. And whilst I’ve had a bit of a hiking hiatus this year, I do plan to look at something big for 2023. But without a solid goal in sight, I tend to get a bit aimless with my training. I’m really good with training well and consistently when I have something coming up but when I don’t, well, my training is, shall we say, a little haphazard! But even when I am in the zone with training, sometimes life just gets so darned busy that the thought of a full workout makes me want to cry! Cue, exercise snacking!
Sitting Is The New Smoking
Before I launch into my experiment, let’s talk about sitting first. Like many of you, my job has me sitting on my backside for a large amount of time each day. Although I almost always manage to get some form of activity at the beginning or end of each day, this is often for no longer than an hour so although I consider myself as being ‘active’ the reality is that I’m only doing something for 1/24th of the day! 23 hours are spent mainly sleeping and sitting. They say that ‘sitting is the new smoking’ and the research absolutely backs up just how dangerous it is for our health to sit for hours each day. So, training for hiking aside, exercise snacking may potentially help prevent a world of health issues!
On to the fun part, the experiment! I knew I needed to change my approach to my training. I was getting nowhere fast. Change is also a great way to freshen things up. So I enlisted the help of a few friends who are also keen hikers to see how it worked for them rather than just base the results on my experience. I’ll call them my Three Guinea Pigs! Two of us are in paid employment in various settings - working from home, working in an office or a combo of the two. But both of us sit pretty much all day at work. My two other guinea pigs are semi/retired. They don’t sit at a desk all day. So their experiences were a little different to that of us sedentary workers.
A few weeks ago I took stock of where I was at with my training after experiencing significant Covid fatigue for longer than I expected. I was starting to feel better and knew it was time to get my act together. The trouble was, I was in the midst of a lot of personal life stuff that was getting on top of me in a way that I was only just getting through to the end of each day with a whimper. I tried doing my workouts over the course of a couple of weeks but I was so exhausted from the other stuff that this just seemed too high a mountain to climb. So I stopped doing them. You’ve been there, right? Maybe you’re going through this right now. It’s awful, more so if you do have a goal you have been training towards really consistently til now.
I didn’t want to keep putting off my training. So I looked for other ways to go about things. As they say, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” (horrible saying but you get my drift!). And what I came up with was a plan to do a few exercises on the hour every hour. And it’s been working a treat! I’m refining it as I go and as I receive feedback from my fabulous guinea pigs (aka my friends).
So, this is how it works - so far.
Install an app on your phone. I use a free app called Stand Up! I’m sure there are plenty of others; I just picked that one because it popped up first on my app search. I have no affiliation with them at all. I then went into the settings and set it to how I wanted my day to look. For me, I wanted to do exercises on weekdays only (when I’m on my butt a lot!). And I wanted to be prompted to get up every hour. You can set it to change what the message prompt says; mine’s a bit rude so I won’t repeat it here! To be honest, you could just as easily use an alarm on your phone but I’m a bit of an app tragic (no surprises there hey!). By setting hourly intervals I was doing this six times a day. Which added up to A LOT of reps!
To be honest, my first week was a bit raw with very little thought going into the exercises I chose to do. So after doing this for a week and actually finding it really easy to fit into my day at that stage, I decided to put some proper planning into it rather than the hotch-potch of random exercises I was doing. Also, I was starting to find that getting up every hour actually got a bit annoying! Believe me, that hour comes around REALLY fast!. So I changed it to every 1.5 hours. This means doing the exercises 5 times a day instead of 6 so it’s no biggie and I’m still getting loads of reps in.
The exercises themselves were good and I picked those because they’re great for hikers but I wanted these mini sessions to make more sense. So here’s what I propose for those of you who might want to give this a try. Split your sessions up into one of these options. Upper body one day and lower body the following day. Or push exercises one day and pull exercises the following day. Personally, I prefer push/pull because it means I’ll be working both upper and lower body each session and in my head, it feels like a more ‘complete’ workout (however upper/lower is equally as effective, it’s just the weird way my head works!)
An example of each might look something like this:
Upper/Lower (start with lower body on the Mon so you get an extra session of that)
Mon: squat variation, deadlift variation, glute bridge variation, calf raise variation
Tues: push up/bench press variation, seated/ banded/ dumbbell row variation, core exercise
Wed: repeat Mon
Thur: repeat Tues
Fri repeat Mon
Mon: squat variation, step ups, calf raise variation, bench press variation, shoulder press variation
Tues: deadlift variation, glute bridge variation, row variation, core
Wed: repeat Mon
Thur: repeat Tues
Fri: repeat Mon
Feedback and Experiment Results
I started doing these exercise snacks every hour with the first starting at 10am and the last being at 3pm. That was a total of 6 times a day. This was fine for the first week. But then it did my head in! That hour came around super fast - I felt like a yo-yo getting up and down all the time! So whilst it’s still really important for your health to try to move every hour, I changed my workouts to every 1.5 hours instead (I’d still try to at least stand up and do something on the hour even if it was just for a quick stretch of the legs). 90 minute intervals aren’t so disruptive and you still get a lot of reps in each day.
By the end of Week 2, I was super bored with the same old, same old so I changed the exercises a bit to some harder variations. That was good and I felt like my strength was coming back. Definitely on the right track with this. Even my niggly achillies was starting to feel the benefits of all those calf raises.
So now I’m in Week 4 and, to be honest, I’m a bit over it. I’m looking forward to getting back into the gym when I’m able to in a couple of weeks where I’ll go back to doing my full strength workouts. The exercise-snacking has its limitations in that you can really only do a small number of exercises before it actually turns into more of a proper workout. But whilst life is still in a bit of flux, I’m going to stick with it because it’s working for me. Until things settle down again in a couple of weeks, I know I’d struggle to get the big workouts done. And getting these exercises done 5 days a week is far better than letting everything go and not doing anything, right? I definitely feel the difference in my strength so it's working!
So, how did my guinea pig friends fair? Well, the two who are semi/retired gave some really interesting feedback.
Sandra - started doing the exercises every 45 minutes but as she also does other things during the day (including taking her gorgeous pooch for really long walks), the 45 min intervals kinda got in the way. So she changed it to every two hours. Her feedback was that using the app made her realise that she wasn’t moving as much as she thought she did over the course of the whole day so it made her mindful to make sure she incorporated more movement into her waking hours. She also reflected that doing small snacks of exercises really did help prepare her for her return to the gym to start doing her full workouts. So rather than start from a base of 0, she was already prepped and didn’t find her gym workouts anywhere near as hard as they’d have been if she’d started from scratch
Jackie - another busy woman who never sits around. We talk most days and I get exhausted just hearing what she crams into her days. So getting up every hour didn’t work for her as she was already up and doing something. However she did find that she didn’t take the time during her busy day to dedicate to exercising. So she’s using the app to remind her to do some isometric exercises.
And my other office/home-based worker -
Jodie - she did it intermittently and generally as an alternative to her evening, after work full workout. She had an injury that had become worse in recent times and sitting for hours on end didn’t help. So being prompted to get up hourly and move around helped with this. She basically adapted her evening workout to her hourly exercises, meaning she was doing mainly calf raises, wall sits and some core work. She did hers differently to me. She chose to do one exercise each hour and did 3 x 15reps of the chosen exercise. Her feedback was that they felt easy at the time but she felt some muscle soreness the following day. She loved that she got more done this way than in her single evening session and especially that it prompted her to get some movement in every hour.
So, there you go. Some ideas for you to think about if you’re currently struggling to get in the zone for your workouts! Like I said earlier, I don’t see this option as being an ideal way to train long term. Stringing together a larger number of exercises into supersets for 30 mins or more is more likely to develop muscular endurance than these bite-sized workouts. But if you’re teetering on the edge of dropping out entirely, this approach might just be something that can help keep you on track.
If you decide to give them a go, I’d love to hear your feedback!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea is a coach with Summit Strength, who specialise in helping hikers get strong and pain-free for their adventures.
At the age of 54, she discovered a real passion for hiking. But she also discovered just how limiting physical fitness and pain can be on the trail.
After signing up to one of the Summit Strength signature programs, she discovered just how much of a difference the right training can make to a hiker's enjoyment and comfort on their adventures. She knows that the journey isn't always easy and 'life' can sometimes impact on our training goals. She shares her insights and experiences with us in her blog articles.
These days, as an Online Adventure Coach with Summit Strength, she helps hikers all around the world get fit, strong and resilient for their adventures.
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Rowan is a personal trainer who specialises in training for hiking, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures.
Summit Strength is a personal training for hiking service created specifically to help hikers have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful adventure.