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  • Writer's pictureKate Duder

'Exercise Snacks' - what exercise can benefit people with chronic illness?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

We are always hearing how exercise is good for both your mental and physical health and for some people constantly being bombared with this information can be daunting. You might have a chronic illness that prevents you from exercising, playing sports or going to the gym or you maybe someone who just doesnt enjoy sports or a busy mum who lacks the time to exercise in the traditional sense. Eitherway there is good news for you.

I recently listened to the podcast on 'Movement and Exercise Snacks' by Dr Sarah Ballantyne and Stacy Toth of The Whole View and realised that there were implications for people like myself with chronic illness who can't do the exercise that they might want to do, but also want to look after their health. It gives me comfort and ideas for movement that I can do to benefit my health, so I can worry less about what I can't do. You can listen to the podcast here, but keep reading for some of the science and ways that I move to benefit my health.

Walking - exercise is good for both mental and physical wellbeing

It is correct that exercise is good for both mental and physical wellbeing and walking is one of the most beneficial and easily accessible forms of exercise that you can do. One study through the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes it's actually a peer reviewed scientific journal devoted to subjective well-being) showed a consistent positive relationship between physical activity and happiness (1). There are also many studies showing that walking relates to improved immunity and lower all-cause mortality i.e reducing your chances of dieing from any disease cause.

It is also true that being sedentary is not good for your health. Studies have shown that prolonged sedentary time (1 hour or more at one time), is associated with negative health outcomes regardless of other physical activity. (2,3) This means that going the gym for an hour or two at night, doesn't negate the risk from hours of being sedentary during the day.

'BUT'.. Research also shows that exercise doesn't need to be the intensity or length that we all hear most about, it doesn't even need to be walking (if you don't like or can't manage regulaly walking for 20-30 minutes), going to the gym or doing that home yoga class.

So what type of movement does help us? The answer is any movement with any consistent movement on a regular basis building health.

So What are Exercise Snacks?

It's an interesting term that doesn't mean eating while you are out there trying to exercise! The literature refers to small 'snacks' of exercise that you can do everyday (relative to your health and fitness level), at home, in the office or outdoors to improve your wellbeing and strength. No need to change into workout clothes or go anywhere for most of these.

Studies have shown that movement is important for improving markers of health. For people with a chronic illness who may have no choice but to rest for periods of time, or busy mums who are short on time, or people who don't naturally gravitate to exercise, small amounts of movement (paced and relative for your condition) can have a meaningful impact on your health.

2 min movement breaks every hour reduce health risk

Studies show that breaking up sedentary time with movement or 'exercise snacks' reduces the potential harm of the sedentary time (4,5,6). Research recomends that a 2 minute movement break (not just standing) for every 20 minutes of being sedentary, reverses the negative effects of being sedentary. This could include walking to the kitchen to get a cuppa, stretching, 1 or 2 yoga poses, a series of press ups, squats or sit ups (see more about strength below), walking to the mailbox or walking around the garden (these last two get you natural light which has other benefits also). I know we all love having no ads with streaming TV shows, however, who used to get up in the ads and do the dishes or something around the house? Adverts actually did have a benefit after all!

Research also shows that very short bursts (seconds rather than minutes) of specific activity can increase mucsle strenngth and/or cardio and respiratory health. One study had participants do just 3 seconds of max muscle effort exercise such as bicep curls, 5 days a week for 5 weeks and this lead to a 10% improvement in muscle strength after 4 weeks (7). Participants in another study did 20 seconds of 'all out' bike sprints, with 1-4 hours rest in between, 3 times a day, only 3 days a week for 6 weeks. This was compared to participants doing 20 sec all out sprints only 3 min rest between (so similar to internal training) and both had improvements (4-6%) in Cardiorespiratory fitness (8).

This has huge implications for anyone looking to improve either strength or physical welbeing with limited limit or energy resources (and will support mental wellbeing as well). The key is to picking something managable for you and sticking with it. I was blown away to learn that i could do 3 or 20 seconds of a specific intensity activity on a regular basis to benefit my strength or physical health. Of course if you can do more, then build on this, but for those needing a simpler starting place you can know that you will still get benefit from these activities.

a 3 second intense activity to build strength could be:

a 3 second intense activity can build strength
  • fast bicep curls with cans from the kitchen cupboard

  • 2-3 push ups, lunges, squats or sit ups

  • wall sits

  • planks

  • wall push ups (if you're in the office and don't want to get on the floor)

20 seconds of high intensity exercise could be:

20 seconds of high intensity exercise
  • push ups, squats, lunges or sit ups

  • runnng to the mail box and back (I live on a hill so running up it would definatley be called intense)

  • fast running on the spot

  • a wall sit

  • skipping

  • knees up running in place

  • star jumps

  • dancing - to your favourite tune or with the kids

  • stair climbs at the office - can you do 3 of these a day?

  • one of the Blue Zone Movement Cube Ideas below

If you can, generally aiming for 2-2.5 hours of moderate exercise or movement a week has significant benefits to your health. The good news is that every little bit counts towards this, it doesn't have to be done in one block. Here are some things that you may do already that will count:

dance with your kids - every bit of movement counts
gardening - every bit of movement counts
  • gardening

  • active play with the kids

  • a few sit ups, squats, push ups or wall sits

  • a few yoga poses

  • walking to the mailbox or dairy

  • parking the car down the road and walking the kids 5 minutes to school

  • taking the stairs instead of the lift

  • wall sits while checking social media or reading something on your phone

  • walking as you talk on the phone

Blue Zone Movement Cube

I really like this Blue Zone Movement Cube, which you can download here. In fact the whole Blue Zones website is pretty cool, inspired by blue zone's, the world’s longest-lived cultures (but that's another topic for another day).

Stretching helps my Brain Function, Energy and Sleep

Another from of movemant that makes significant impact to how I feel is stretching. I hold tension in my shoulders back and neck and find that if I do the following neck, shoulder and back stretches regularly I get immediate relief from brain fog and sluggish eneregy. Stretching my hips, quads, glutes and hamstrings also helps me feel relaxed and improves my sleep.

  • Wall Shoulder Stretch - place both hands on a wall shoulder width apart with your arms straight. Walk your feet back push your shoulders towards the wall so that you feel a stretch in your shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat if needed

  • Single Overhead Shoulder Stretch - stand side on to the wall and reach straight up with your right arm and plave your han d flat on the wall. Gently lean into the wall with your right shoulder until you feel a stretch through the top and front of the shoulder. repeat with the left.

  • Pec Stretch - this can be done with a straight or bent arm. Either bend your arm at 90 degrees against a wall and gently lean forward or with a straight arm hold ont o a door frame or wall corner and lean forward. Both will create a stretch in your upper arm, front shoulder and slightly into your chest.

  • Chin tuck and Sub-Occipital Stretch - Lying down on the floor, tuck your chin to your neck so that you feel a gentle stretch at the back of your neck and hold for 20 seconds. Then, sitting down with your back straight and chin tucked. Hold your fingers under your skull and lengthen your neck by pulling yoru skull upwards. You should feel a gentle stretch at the top of your neck under your fingers. Stop immediately if you get any dizziness.

  • Anterior Scalene (front of neck) Stretch - hold your fingers just above your collarbone on one side of the neck. Gently rotate your neck to the same side and then gently look up until you feel a stretch at the front side of your neck. Repeat on the other side.

  • Neck Flexion with Side Flexion - tuck your chin towards your neck then bend your head gently to the side and hold. You will feel a stretch at the side of your neck. If you move your head slightly forward you will move the stretch slightly to different areas of the neck. Repeat on the other side.

Stretches help blood flow and ease tension

Every body needs movement, so move in a way that suits your body.


1. A Systematic Review of the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Happiness.

2. Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults

3. Association of Sedentary Time with Mortality Independent of Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity

4. Breaking up prolonged sitting with light-intensity walking improves postprandial glycemia, but breaking up sitting with standing does not

5. Breaks in sedentary time: beneficial associations with metabolic risk.

6. Breaking Up Prolonged Sitting Reduces Postprandial Glucose and Insulin Responses.

7. Effect of daily 3-s maximum voluntary isometric, concentric, or eccentric contraction on elbow flexor strength.

8. Sprint exercise snacks: a novel approach to increase aerobic fitness.

9. Do stair climbing exercise “snacks” improve cardiorespiratory fitness?

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