Fitness and health experts have often recommended sneaking more exercise into your day, with suggestions like carrying multiple grocery bags in from the car after errands or running up a flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator. But do these mini-bursts of exercise really add up to anything?
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As it turns out, the answer is: Absolutely.
Sometimes called "workout snacks" or "nutritious movement," this strategy is formally called high-intensity incidental physical activity, or HIIPA (not to be confused with HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a law that protects the privacy of your health information).
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Benefits of HIIPA
An editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine from February 2019 noted there's a breadth of evidence that HIIPA confers significant fitness advantages, especially for those new to exercise or coming back from injuries.
"The benefits of HIIPA, like how many calories you burn, will vary according to how much you do, whether you're generally sedentary, your age, and your body composition," says lead author of the editorial, Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, from the University of Sydney School of Public Health.
"But in general, HIIPA can increase your capacity for more exercise, and improve heart health and respiration, even if you're only doing a few minutes of it per day."
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What Activities Count as HIIPA?
You can gain benefits from incidental physical activity (IPA), says Stamatakis, such as boosting the amount of time you walk every day by parking at the far end of a store's lot or standing at your desk periodically instead of sitting all day. But to qualify as HIIPA, you need that "high intensity" part of the activity.
Intensity can be increased most efficiently with higher load or exertion, says Life Time trainer Mark Issacson, CSCS, so you'll either be lifting and carrying heavier loads than you would otherwise or you'll be doing activities faster — or both at the same time.
For example, parking further away is IPA, but if you walk at double your normal speed, it becomes HIIPA. Using a standing desk is IPA, but adding a small box so you can do step-ups makes it HIIPA-worthy.
"It's easy to get creative and think about how you can add to the intensity once you begin bringing in more activity," Issacson says. "Then you can get into the habit of doing a little more, each time."
Tips for Getting More HIIPA in Your Days
If you're already focusing on getting more workout snacks throughout the day, here are a few more ways to dial up the intensity:
Sprint a few times every day. Just like a workout can be more effective by kicking up the intensity periodically with short bursts of high-energy work, your HIIPA efforts can do the same. Run up a flight of stairs at top speed, do 10 high-knees exercises right after a conference call, commit to 20-second speed bursts when riding your bike to work.
Use those dead-zone times. Because HIIPA bursts are so short, they're easy to work in anytime, but Issacson says it's best to structure them into your schedule, so they become a habit. For example, do 5 squats or 15 calf raises (or both) when you're brushing your teeth, throw in a few jump lunges as you're waiting for your morning coffee to brew, grab a big water bottle or a dumbbell and do single-arm overhead presses while you scroll through Instagram. It all adds up.
Think in 30. According to Stamatakis, health benefits kick in with 30-second bursts, so aim for that half-minute intensity as a starting point. Vacuum extra fast for those 30 seconds or carry your bags overhead (carefully!) for 30 seconds as you walk from your car.
Read more: 10 Activities That Burn More Calories Than You Think
Does HIIPA Replace Workouts?
Let's say you're in HIIPA beast mode as often as possible — practically sprinting down the office hallway, doing a farmer's carry with your shopping bags out to the car, scrubbing out the tub so fast you're practically a blur — does that mean you can cancel your gym membership? Probably not.
While HIIPA can substantially increase your cardiovascular health and endurance, and allow you to burn more calories that you would otherwise — which can potentially lead to faster weight loss, if that's your goal — it would be very challenging to do enough to get to the recommended weekly physical guidelines, says physical therapist Jasmine Marcus, DPT, CSCS.
The intensity might be there, but you also need volume in terms of time spent exercising, she says. The recommendation is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. But keep in mind that's considered the minimum, and government recommendations suggest 300 minutes a week is even better. Plus, you'll need some strength training added in at least twice a week, too.
Because of that, structured workout blocks at least a few times per week tend to work best, Marcus says.
If your goal is weight loss, improving heart health or increasing athletic performance, you'll need to do more than get these 'workout snacks' throughout the day, she says. That said, they do add up to improve your fitness capacity overall, so it's a great idea to get into the HIIPA habit.