It’s 1 January, you wake up at the crack of dawn and make your way to a 7am gym session, loaded with a new-found motivation to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Fast forward to 31 January, your alarm rings at 6am, you press snooze and cancel that 7am gym session you promised yourself you’d attend, then feel guilty for the rest of the day! Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone.
The population has become less physically active and more sedentary, which we know is associated with an increased risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Being physically active is also important for promoting mental health. However, to encourage people to be more physically active, physical activity goals need to be easy to achieve and sustainable over time.
Motivation to engage in healthier behaviours naturally fluctuates over time. After Christmas, our motivation levels are high and so we feel inspired to set big goals, such as going for a cycle or run six times a week at 7am.
Achieving these goals will be easy whilst our motivation levels remain high, however, when our motivation levels inevitably dip, achieving these goals becomes increasingly difficult.
If you find it hard to sustain the New Year’s physical activity resolutions you set yourself, then a bite-sized approach to exercise and activity promoted by the Snacktivity™ approach might help.
Current public health guidance in the UK states that adults should achieve at least 150-minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity each week, often promoted as five sessions of around 30 minutes. However, many people do not reach this weekly target, and those who are inactive need to make significant and often unattainable changes to their lives to get anywhere near achieving this target.
Snacktivity™ is all about doing small but frequent bouts of regular physical activity (called 'activity snacks') to accumulate and build up at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity a week. It has been designed to be suitable for everyone, including people with disabilities, those living with obesity, the elderly, inactive or anyone who struggles to find the time to fit in physical activity to their lives.
An ‘activity snack’ typically lasts between 2-5 minutes. Examples include doing arm raises while seated, choosing a parking space further away and walking briskly to your location, doing calf raises while washing up, taking the stairs instead of using a lift and getting off the bus a stop early for a walk to your destination.
A further benefit of the approach is that it encourages physical activity while simultaneously breaking up prolonged periods of sedentary behaviour.
But a new approach to promoting physical activity will only prove effective if people find it easy to start and keep going. Our team at the Centre for Lifestyle Medicine and Behaviour has been investigating if Snacktivity™ is acceptable, and easier to sustain over time compared to current physical activity guidance.
We surveyed 724 patients from six diverse GP practices in the West Midlands and found that the majority (85 per cent) of respondents liked the concept and the flexibility of the approach was highly rated.
People liked it mostly because it did not require any special equipment or clothes, because it was quick to do and could easily slot into the day at home. The majority of people also thought the ability to monitor their activity throughout the day, through the use of a specially-developed smart phone app, would incentivise them to complete the activities.
Given the lack of success in encouraging inactive people to achieve large(r) bouts of physical activity, activity snacks may be an important complementary public health message that offers a way of implementing this guidance.
Most of the population should be able to manage doing small, frequent bouts of activity and, therefore, this approach addresses health inequalities making it accessible to all. Snacking is a common behaviour that many of us like to do, and for the first time the public could be encouraged to snack as much as they want, just not on unhealthy foods, but on exercise.
Professor of Behavioural Medicine and Centre Director
This article was first published by the British Psychological Society