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With gyms closed, try intermittent workouts – you might even get more out of them

Adding a variety of small workouts to your day can have mental and physical benefits. (Lindsey Saenz)
By Pam Moore Special to the Washington Post

For many of us, quarantining means more Netflix, puzzles and baking – and less moving. If you’re concerned about how your newfound sedentary lifestyle is affecting your body, try intermittent workouts.

Intermittent workouts are mini-sessions performed periodically throughout your day. You can set a timer or use a trigger such as seeing a certain object or walking into a certain room to signal when to engage in the workout. According to Craig Weller, an Evergreen, Colorado, certified personal trainer and nutrition coach, you should aim to be active about once every hour.

You can do one exercise at a time or a variety of exercises, ideally choosing a mixture throughout the day to target your upper and lower body such as squats, lunges, planks, wall sits and pushups. Which exercises and how many reps are up to you. You can incorporate weights, but it’s not necessary.

The goal is not to work out as hard or as quickly as possible. “It’s not a beatdown,” says Weller, who calls these “trigger workouts.” Rather, you should stop well before fatigue sets in, spending 15 seconds to five minutes exercising.

Weller, a former U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant crewman, was introduced to the concept in the military. “If you had some downtime,” he recalls, “guys would set a timer on their watch, and every hour they’d do a set or a couple sets of pushups.”

It might not sound like much, but the mental and physical benefits add up. According to Weller, over time, “You start to change the association (your) brain has with that activity.” Instead of associating squats or pushups with a painful session at the gym and a spike in stress hormones, you normalize the activity, and it becomes “just part of (your) repertoire,” he explains.

Decoupling the stress response from physical activity is especially important amid the coronavirus outbreak. “A physical stress response is exactly the same thing as an emotional anxiety response,” Weller says.

Given the emotional and financial burdens many are facing, the last thing we need is more stress. Intermittent workouts let you work your muscles, strengthen your bones and build connective tissue without activating the body’s stress response. Weller says, “It’s not an ideal time to go and beat the hell out of yourself in the gym.”

In fact, torturing yourself at the gym isn’t the key to fitness during a pandemic – or ever. “Going to the gym three times a week, even for an hour, isn’t where you get fit,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist, fitness consultant and author of the forthcoming book, “The Microworkout Plan.” It’s what you do the rest of the day that makes a difference.

Holland, who is based in Connecticut, says many people “do a lot of exercise a little bit,” expecting to see improvement. But the true, long-term benefits of exercise, he says, come from “doing a little bit a lot,” or what he calls “excessive moderation.”

Now 51, Holland was 14 when he read that Herschel Walker did 300 pushups and 300 situps every day. Intrigued, Holland decided to follow his idol’s training regimen. But he didn’t do it all at once. “I would do, you know, sets of 10 in the morning (and) throughout the day,” he says.

He has continued the habit ever since. He started out doing pushups and crunches during TV commercials. Now, among other sessions staggered throughout the day, he completes a set of pushups first thing in the morning, right before bed and every time he enters his office.

Can intermittent workouts replace focused endurance workouts or resistance training sessions? No, Holland says. But he credits the frequent, short and low-intensity bouts with maintaining his ability to execute his favorite type of workout, a 10-mile run. “If I’m not doing those things, I’m not running at all,” he says.

Holly Roser, a San Mateo, California, personal trainer, doesn’t recommend training for a 5k run on intermittent workouts alone. But, she says, they will build strength and boost cardiovascular fitness, making the effort feel a bit easier. With gyms closed and many avoiding outdoor activities, intermittent workouts, which require little space and no equipment, can help you prepare to return to the sports you can’t engage in while quarantined.

And if you’re missing the activities that punctuated your typical day before the pandemic, intermittent workouts can – and should – fill those gaps regardless of whether you perform a traditional 20- to 60-minute workout. Research has established the health risks of sitting, but Holland says nonexercise activity thermogenesis can help counteract them. NEAT includes activities such as strolling the aisles at Target, waiting in line at the bank and walking from your desk to the cafeteria.

In the absence of those opportunities for movement, intermittent workouts are an excellent alternative. Though they technically count as exercise, because they’re relatively easy and quick, they don’t feel like work. Weller says he views them as similar to commuting, “like another task that you do that doesn’t require any significant stress response.”

Intermittent workouts might also facilitate better nutrition. Because of a phenomenon known as hedonic compensation, Weller says, people tend to eat more than they normally would or enjoy unhealthy treats after doing any physical activity they perceive as exercise or punishment, such as a 45-minute weightlifting or cardio routine. Intermittent workouts don’t feel like workouts, so you’re unlikely to think they warrant a reward.

According to Roser, you might be less likely to crave processed items such as ice cream or potato chips when you’re active throughout the day. If you are due for an intermittent workout, the idea of moving your body immediately after eating junk food won’t be appealing, she says. And like longer, more intense workouts, intermittent workouts can elevate mood, improve focus and reduce anxiety – all of which can make you less prone to emotional eating.

Although you can use feelings such as boredom, sadness or anxiety as triggers for workouts, Weller says, it takes “a fair amount of self-awareness to use an emotional trigger.” Roser suggests using cravings as a trigger. If you’re hungry for something sweet or salty, rather than a nutrient-dense option such as soup, a sandwich or a salad, “That’s a signal that (you are) emotionally hungry and not physically hungry,” Roser says. Try an intermittent workout, and you might find that you don’t need ice cream or chips, after all.

Whether they use intermittent workouts in addition to or in place of a traditional sweat session, seasoned athletes and beginners alike will reap the benefits of low-intensity, frequent movement, Weller says. “It’s really just getting people closer to the type of regular, open-ended, nonmaximal daily activity that we’re evolved for.”