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How 'exercise snacks' can combat the effects of sitting all day

To combat the harmful effects of sitting, "every minute counts," researchers told TODAY.
/ Source: TODAY

In the lead up to Al Roker's replacement of his knee replacement, he hasn't been able to walk as much as he'd like. But the beloved weatherman has figured out a strategy to help him squeeze in more steps throughout the day, instead of doing one long walk.

"My knee is shot," he explained in the 3rd Hour of TODAY on March 28. "I haven't been able to do my normal walking." Still, throughout the day on Monday, March 27, he ended up with over 13,000 steps. It's not his best total ever, but it's at the top since he started experiencing knee problems.

One way he was able to reach that goal is the treadmill in his TODAY show dressing room, he told co-host Dylan Dreyer. He said he also went to the NBC fitness center for the first time since the pandemic. Then TODAY contributor Jill Martin chimed in that Al often spends meetings walking.

This strategy of small bursts of movement throughout the day, also known as "exercise snacking," can be a powerful antidote to the health impacts of sitting for hours a day at your work desk.

One study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that 30 to 40 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous activity mostly counteracts the damage done by lots of time sitting and better yet, that the exercise can be done in short spurts.

“Physical activity of at least moderate intensity, equivalent to the current recommendations from the World Health Organization (150 to 300 minutes of activity of at least moderate intensity per week for adults), seems to attenuate the risk of death associated with high sedentary time,” said the study’s lead author, Ulf Ekelund, a professor in the department of Sport Medicine at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo.

“It is possible to split up the activity to as short as 1-minute bouts,” Ekelund said in an email. “We examined accumulated time in minutes in light, moderate and vigorous intensity, which effectively means that ‘every single minute counts.’ The newly released (WHO) guidelines suggest that you can accumulate physical activity in small bouts (such as taking the stairs) throughout the day.”

The new study along with one by some of the same researchers (published in 2019 in the BMJ) looked at the impact of physical activity, as measured throughout the day with devices called accelerometers, on the risk of death from any cause. The newer study examined how various amounts of exercise and sitting interacted with one another. The researchers totaled all the minutes during the day that were shown to be active and sedentary by the accelerometers.

An important point from the most recent study is that you can undo the damage of sitting.

“We observed that those who were most active did not have a statistically increased risk of death regardless of high sitting time compared with the group with the highest MVPA (moderate-to-vigorous physical activity) and lowest sedentary time,” Ekelund said. “Those in the middle group (11 minutes per day) had no increased risk of death if they belonged to the least sedentary (about 8.5 hours per day).”

It’s important to remember that sitting time includes not only time in the office but during the rest of the day as well.

Sports medicine expert Matthew Darnell is intrigued by the idea of short bouts of activity adding up to the recommended amounts.

“Another recent study referred to this as ‘exercise snacks,’” said Darnell, an assistant professor in the department of sports medicine and nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and sports dietician for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I really like that term,” Darnell said. “It could be as simple as going for a walk around the block two times a day. Those little exercise snacks add up over time.”