Covid Couch Potato? Stay Active with 'Movement Snacks'

Our lifestyles have been getting more and more sedentary for decades but research shows that we have hit new levels since the pandemic hit. Could a little thing called movement snacks be the key to staying fit and healthy?

Brock Armstrong
8-minute read
Episode #510
The Quick And Dirty
  • Health and fitness scientists are concerned that children, youth, and adults are not getting the recommended daily dose of movement required for good health since the pandemic began. 
  • Even many regular exercisers have become more sedentary since COVID-19.
  • Embracing the idea of "movement snacks" throughout your day could be a simple solution. 

The International Journal of Exercise Science published a study titled The Acute Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior in University Students and Employees recently. It highlighted the need for more daily movement—something I call "movement snacks"—now more than ever.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most universities across the United States closed campuses, sent students home, and transitioned from face-to-face classes to remote learning. Such changes, coupled with physical distancing guidelines, and various levels of quarantine, have altered social interactions and limited our access to fitness facilities, studios, and gyms. 

It’s not just university students, either—younger children have had more sedentary time during the pandemic. In fact, the CBC (Candian Broadcasting Corporation) reports that just five percent of Canadian children met basic physical activity guidelines early in the pandemic. 

And another study on older adults, called The COVID-19 pandemic and physical activity, reported "Unfortunately, modern lifestyle behaviors promote physical inactivity and sedentariness. These poor lifestyle behaviors are intensified by social distancing and self-imposed or government-mandated quarantine measures intended to reduce COVID-19 spread."

Spending some time in a gym or at a fitness class is great, but it should take a backseat to making regular movement a part of daily life.

I probably don’t need to even say this, but I believe this is a big problem. Both social interaction and access to exercise facilities promote physical activity. But many people still are of the mind that a gym, club, or studio is the best (and perhaps the only) way to get physical movement into their day. And worse yet, they believe that once they've checked that workout off their to-do list, they're free to loaf about for the remainder of the day.

If you have been following me for any amount of time, you know that I believe in the importance of living an active lifestyle. Spending some time in a gym or at a fitness class is great, but it should take a backseat to making regular movement a part of daily life.

The past few months have made it even more evident than ever that more of us need to adopt this philosophy. 

Science looks at how the pandemic changed our physical activity

Recently, a group of Kent State University researchers took a close look at the impact of these pandemic-related changes on overall physical activity and daily sedentary behavior. The researchers looked specifically at the amount of sitting and the amount of exercise that is now being done across the university population.

Researchers found that university students and staff were sitting for nearly eight hours more per week after the transition to remote learning.

To get to the bottom of the issue, the researchers did a survey version of a before-and-after comparison. Based on the reports from their participants, they found that the students and staff were sitting for nearly eight hours more per week after they transitioned from face-to-face classes to remote learning. 

The researchers also looked at changes in other physical activity, with some surprising and somewhat vexing results. The volunteer participants who were not highly active before the pandemic actually increased their overall physical activity after the campus closure. But the participants who were previously very active before the pandemic experienced an overall decrease in physical activity during the pandemic.

You are likely thinking “Wait! What?” And you wouldn’t be wrong to be confused. At first, this seems like a confusing paradox. 

Health and Human Services professor Jacob Barkley, Ph.D., told Science Daily, "It appears that the participants who were most physically active before the pandemic may have been the most negatively affected."

Fit folks were more accustomed to using fitness facilities and were at loose ends when the gyms were suddenly closed when the pandemic hit.

Dr. Barkley went on to explain that the fit folks were more accustomed to using fitness facilities and were at loose ends when the gyms were suddenly closed when the pandemic hit. Which makes sense. Personally, I received many panicked emails and messages on social media asking me to create more “at home” workout videos to help these unfortunate gym-reliant people maintain some level of fitness sanity. 

But the results from the participants who were less active before the pandemic were more surprising and confusing. Dr. Barkley and his team speculate that factors like the elimination of a daily commute left these folks with more time in their day for physical activity. And perhaps being cooped up at home, all-day every-day, actually prompted them to go out and about more often. 

The risks of sitting longer

The researchers also highlighted that the overall increase in sitting (by over an hour per day) is perhaps even more concerning due to the fact that sitting is associated with a whole bunch of health risks, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Excess body fat around the waist
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels
  • Increased risk of certain types of cancer

According to Science Daily's report, the researchers suggest that “while many people experienced, and may continue to experience, challenging, pandemic-related changes to their daily routines, it is important that we all work to maintain positive health behaviors despite these challenges.”

Recommendations for being less sedentary

The Kent State researchers recommend the following:

  • Try to minimize sitting for extended periods of time and (when possible) add in some exercise at home or outside
  • If you're working or taking classes remotely, try to incorporate a standing desk into your routine and/or plan breaks where you get up and move away from your computer. During those breaks, try to do some light activity.

Breaking up your sedentary activity by adding some physical activity will not only benefit your physical health; it can improve cognition, productivity, and reduce stress.

The researchers concluded, "There are likely lots of us that could use some stress relief right now. Getting up and moving can provide just that."

Adding some physical activity will not only benefit your physical health; it can improve cognition, productivity, and reduce stress.

Get-Fit Guy's favorite movement snacks

Now that we know what science recommends—and admit it; you probably weren't all that surprised by the recommendations—you may be thinking, OK, how the heck do I do that? Here are a few of my favorite movement snacks to get you started.

Get into the habit of a morning warm-up

Pretty much every morning, the first thing I do is my full-body warm-up routine. I start with my feet and ankles, then move up to my knees, hips, low-back, mid-back, shoulders, arms, neck, and even my face (many of us carry a lot of tension in our face muscles.) 

I find that not only does this morning routine help me get ready for my day but it also helps me set the intention of being an active and mobile person for the remainder of the day. My philosophy is that "a human in motion stays in motion."

Create dynamic work areas

While this isn't specifically a movement snack, as we all evolve our home offices into less ramshackle and more permanent fixtures, I want to encourage you to think more dynamically. 

My work life is spent moving through different locations, surfaces, levels, and areas of my home and office.

Yes, I'm that guy who got a standing desk back in 2010. At first, I was hardcore about it, only sitting down when there was no other choice. But then I realized that swapping one static position (sitting still) for another static position (standing still) was not the answer to the sedentary question I was trying to solve. 

So, my work life is now spent moving through different locations, surfaces, levels, and areas of my home and office. 

And because I have a chin-up bar in my office doorway (do you have a pull-up bar at home?), I can even swing and dangle from time to time. So, to combat this increased amount of sitting, I encourage you to sit, stand, squat, kneel, dangle, and pace throughout the day. 

Do hip-hinges

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has written about how beneficial this thing called a hip-hinge is. To do a hip-hinge, you bend forward at the waist and then you reverse the position and push your hips forward. And keep doing that, back and forth, with or without using your arms.

You can do it with just your bodyweight only or, if you want bonus points, you can use a little kettlebell or even a bag or backpack to do the hip-hinge movement called a “kettlebell swing.”

Now, whether you do the regular bodyweight hip hinge or you do the kettlebell swing, I suggest that you set a goal for yourself to do at least 10 at a few points during each day. That’s it. And keep in mind that it will take you about a minute to do 30 so this won’t put a big-time dent in your day.

Go for a walk

As far as getting some full-body and weight-bearing movement into your life, while also being able to get stuff done, nothing beats going for a walk. After all, walking is a superfood because it can help you maintain mobility, de-stress your mind, lower your blood pressure, and reduce your risk of a bunch of chronic diseases. Walking truly is one of the simplest activities that you can do to boost your health and well-being.

If you want to take it up a notch, add some weight by carrying a bag or backpack. That way you can get a movement snack done while also completing tasks like buying your groceries.

Take the stairs

I previously wrote about how the University of Georgia discovered that walking up and down flights of stairs for about 10 minutes actually gives you a more effective boost of energy than chugging 50 milligrams of caffeine (the average amount of caffeine found in a cup of coffee). Not only that, but taking the stairs a few times per day serves as a great movement snack!

You can also do a step-up workout, where you alternate legs stepping up and down, with or without some fancy Fred Astaire moves thrown in. This can be an excellent alternative if you don’t have many stairs nearby or you just want to do something more fun doing repeats on your office building’s fire escape. 

Incorporate the five key exercises

The five key exercises that I would love to see all of us modern-convenience-loving, chair-dwelling, workaday grumblers incorporate into our lives are:

  1. Push-ups
  2. Pull-ups
  3. Squats
  4. Planks
  5. Rotations

For the purpose of using these for a movement snack, you can simply do each one of these five exercises to failure (the term for when you can’t do another rep without falling on your face). Or, set a timer and do 30 seconds of each exercise. Any way you slice it, this is a movement snack that will hit all the exercise targets. 

Make TV time movement time

It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than using some double-sided carpet tape to stick your remote control back onto the TV where it belongs. In many ways, I see the invention of the TV remote control as the beginning of the end for healthy movement. Let's face it, we are literally sitting on our butts watching TV and we still can’t be bothered to get up to change the channel every 30 to 60 minutes. Come on, we’re better than that!

In many ways, I see the invention of the TV remote control as the beginning of the end for healthy movement.

Also during TV time, you can use commercial breaks as a cue to get up and move. We all hate commercials, so why not get up and leave the room? 

My final piece of advice for TV time is to put a yoga mat (or a yoga-mat-like rug) between you and the TV. That way you can spend some of your TV watching time sitting on the floor, stretching, moving, and getting your body into some underused geometry. This will contribute to your mobility rather than lowering it. And our mobility really is a true case of "use it or lose it," so let’s use it!

Add some bedtime stretches

In my podcast and article about how bedtime yoga can help you sleep better, I did a deep dive into how beneficial even just some simple stretching before bed can be. 

An added bonus is that when you spend 15-20 minutes focusing on your body and your breath you are not spending 15-20 minutes focusing on doomscrolling the news, work email, or social media. These activities, and the devices we view them on, have been shown to disrupt your sleep and your overall mood.

These are just a few examples but I hope they have served to spark your creativity so that you can come up with your own specific ways that you can get some movement snacks into your day. Just keep it simple and you'll be fine. Remember that consistency beats difficulty every time.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.