Next time you’re contemplating an all-out, 60-minute spin class, consider this: It may be the toughest workout on Earth—but it might not offer optimal health benefits, at least in terms of blood sugar management. According to a study published in the medical journal Diabetologia last month, “exercise snacks”—short bursts of intense physical activity—could offer some significant health advantages over a single, continuous workout.
Participants in this small study, who all showed signs of insulin resistance, worked out three times before meals—but those workouts differed significantly in length, exertion, and timing. The first workout called for one, single session before dinner: a moderate, 30-minute walk on the treadmill. “Composite exercise snacking” consisted of three 12-minute workouts, one each before breakfast, lunch, and dinner; those three sessions called for six intervals of walking for a minute, followed by 60 seconds of upper-body resistance-band training, for a daily total of 36 minutes. Regular “exercise snacking” mixed elements of the other two workouts: Participants would walk on the treadmill as quickly as possible for a minute, then recover with a slower, minute-long amble, for a total of 12 minutes. Exercise snackers, like the composite exercise snackers, repeated this sequence before each meal.
Most of us usually find ourselves in that first camp—hitting the bike or elliptical for half an hour and then calling it quits for the day. For anyone concerned with maintaining normal blood sugar levels, though, that might be the least effective workout method. The Diabetologia study found that breaking up a daily workout into the three smaller parts—whether the high-intensity/low-intensity mix of exercise snacking, or the cardio/resistance training of composite exercise snacking—offered reductions of around 12% in post-meal blood sugar levels. That’s important because elevated blood sugar levels can lead to serious health problems over time, including damage to the heart and other organs.
The study comes with some caveats: It was small—with just nine subjects, only two of whom are women; and participants all showed signs of insulin resistance, a condition which can herald the onset of type 2 diabetes. The average age of participants was 48, with an average BMI of 36. A bigger, longer study will be needed to confirm these findings. In the meantime though, researchers noted another interesting finding: In addition to the reductions in blood sugar levels, scientists conducting the study found that participants simply enjoyed exercising more when it was broken up into the three mini-sessions. Less, in this case, could definitely be more.
What do you think? Would breaking up your exercise routine into 3 small sessions per day help you fit it in? Tell us in the comments!