Make Small Lifestyle Changes For a Big Impact

Bite-sized health changes, from 1-minute bouts of exercise to 5-minute meditation microbreaks, can have a big impact on your fitness, productivity, energy and mental well-being.

Two years ago, while I was working late at my desk in a downtown Toronto office tower, I came across an article that continues to haunt me: “Meet Emma, a creepy life-sized doll who represents office workers of the future,” read the headline; below it, an image of a woman with a hunched back, swollen ankles, sallow skin and bloodshot eyes stared back at me. Commissioned by an office furniture company, Emma was created based on data about physical ailments from 3,000 European employees—a life size warning of what largely sedentary staffers might look like in 20 years if nothing changes. I shut my laptop and headed for the subway station: The rest of my work could wait until tomorrow.

I didn’t have the healthiest workday habits before the pandemic—I tended to be overcaffeinated and under-watered, spent 10 to 11 hours at my desk instead of the requisite eight, had an inconsistent exercise routine and a variable sleep schedule, with many a late night spent staring at a screen. But since transitioning to a WFH lifestyle 20 months ago, somehow, it’s gotten even worse. At least in the Before Times, when I commuted to and from my office, walked around it to fill up my water bottle and attend meetings, and left my desk periodically for coffee breaks and lunches, I easily clocked 10,000 steps a day—a number that’s become a benchmark on wearable fitness devices and tracking apps. Neighbouring colleagues provided frequent social intervals, and intermittently during the workday, I’d peer out the large windows to watch the hum of the city go by. Now, in my two-bedroom apartment, I’m lucky if I reach 5,000 steps—that’s usually from a walk or two around the block if I’m diligent enough to take them. My husband, knowing that I’m still spooked by Emma, regularly warns me, as I’m curled over my laptop for eight hours (or often longer): “You’re going to turn into the office worker of the future.”

I’m someone, it seems, who needs the structure of office life to build in bouts of movement and revitalizing breaks that are important for everything from reducing harmful sedentary time to staving off burnout. But, because I’m not heading back to the office anytime soon, I need to make some changes. Turns out, big ones aren’t required.

The Health Benefits of Small Lifestyle Changes

The benefits of micro health habits, anything from engaging in 60 seconds of exercise to taking a few minutes to unplug for your mental health, are gaining traction across health disciplines. Science is proving what feels like common sense: adding in healthy habits where you can, even if miniscule, is better than nothing. “Trying to overhaul your life all in one fell swoop is incredibly hard [and] inconsistent with the realities of life,” says Dr. Lesley Lutes, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan whose areas of research include lifestyle behavioral changes and mental health and well-being. Instead, says Lutes, it’s about our ability to sustain small, meaningful changes.

One small change could be adding what researchers call “exercise snacks” into your day. The term was coined by researcher Monique Francois in a 2014 study to describe one-minute bouts of intense exercise. But Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and bestselling author of The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That’s Smarter, Faster, Shorter, says the concept of exercise snacks is simply interval training repackaged and rebranded. That approach to working out first gained public attention in the 1950s, when the Canadian military invented a fitness regimen for sedentary air force pilots called 5BX. “The plan, which stands for five basic exercises, eventually spread beyond the military and over 20 million pamphlets were distributed to Canadian households. It’s this idea of getting fit on your own without the need for specialized equipment, in a relatively time-efficient manner,” says Gibala. In our current pandemic circumstances, he says, this type of fitness has resonated once again: “The notion of exercise snacks is quite suited for the times—it’s reminded people of the power of bodyweight-style exercise, of simple things like stair climbing. We don’t need to be fancy to keep fit.”

In a joint study between McMaster and UBC Okanagan published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism in 2018, Gibala and his fellow researchers looked at sedentary young adults who vigorously climbed three flights of stairs, three times a week for six weeks—and they saw a measurable improvement in their fitness. But, before adding three snacks a week, consider where you’re at: “If you’re completely sedentary and out of shape, anything is better than nothing,” says Gibala. “Maybe a single 20-second exercise snack, once a day, a couple of times a week, is going to be beneficial.”

Adding Micro Health Habits to Your Every Day

To set myself up for success, Gibala suggests scheduling the snacks in my calendar. So, I add three into my 9 to 5: at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. When the alert goes off for my first-ever exercise snack, I decide to travel across the room via walking lunges, for a total of 50 seconds. Surprisingly, I am breathless by the end and my legs feel fatigued—but the best part is, I’m not sweaty. And, instead of filling up my coffee cup again, as I’m wont to do mid-morning, I go for a glass of water before returning to my laptop. Snack one, consumed—and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

The Benefits of Microbreaks

While scheduling can be an effective way to work in exercise snacks, the opposite is true for microbreaks, those short, informal respites of self-chosen activities taken voluntarily between your work tasks. Research shows that they result in less stress and fatigue, and increased engagement, happiness and productivity. Sooyeol Kim, an assistant professor at National University Singapore, has been studying the impacts of microbreaks for a decade. He describes them as five- to seven-minute periods away from your work doing anything from getting a snack or coffee to chatting with a colleague, reading an article or watching a video. With three published studies and two more ongoing, he’s found that employees who take frequent microbreaks to relax—by doing such things as stretching, daydreaming or meditating—experience the most benefits. “When you interact with others for microbreak purposes, you spend some psychological energy; and when you read something, it’s cognitively demanding. But with relaxation, you can be temporarily away from work-related tasks and resource expenditure,” says Kim.

For me, the biggest challenge is ensuring my breaks stay micro. While Kim says that picking up your phone to check your Instagram feed can qualify as a microbreak, it’s important to keep it purposeful and brief, rather than a mindless scrolling session (guilty!) that will wind up depleting more energy and resources. “When we see positive or exciting news from our social media, like a close friend got a job or he or she is getting married, that can have a refreshing effect,” he says. I feel microbreaks are going to take a little more work for me to enact with the right balance of both freedom and discipline, but Kim has a suggestion on where to start: when writing a demanding article, for example, if you’re stuck on a sentence, gaze out the window or watch a YouTube clip for five minutes. You’ll return to the work refreshed, and maybe you’ll have generated a new idea.

How to Get Started

While these bite-sized habits are designed for easy implementation, ultimately, they’re about finding what works for you. “There is no one-size-fits-all plan,” says Lutes. She also stresses that changes don’t need to be permanent: maybe you’ll stick with the exercise snacks for a few weeks, she tells me, and then find they’re not for you, and instead you’ll start taking five minutes to do some yoga poses or stand during meetings. “The most powerful thing you can do for your health is to start focusing on being less sedentary,” Lutes says. “A step is a step is a step, and it all adds up to improve your mental health and physical health.”

Looking for inspiration on how to get started? Try these:

Standing sessions
Even if you’re not getting up for a walk or exercise snack, standing is better than sitting. Your Apple Watch or Fitbit will tell you to stand regularly, or there are apps that will do so, like Stand Up! The Work Break Timer. Better yet, upgrade to a height-adjustable standing desk.

Regular sips
No need to chug: research shows that drinking water slowly and steadily throughout the day, and consuming it with meals, is key for optimal hydration—critical for everything from organ functionality to helping improve sleep quality and mood. Try a reminder and tracking app like WaterMinder, or a smart water bottle such as HidrateSpark, which lights up when it’s time for a sip.

Sunshine stops
Make one (or more!) of your microbreaks a five-minute walk around the block, and not only will you get some steps in and clear your head, but you’ll also top up your vitamin D supply (your body needs the nutrient to maintain healthy bones, plus it’s shown to support muscle function and brain cell activity). A vitamin D and UV tracker app like QSun can help ensure you’re safely exposing yourself while soaking up the sunshine vitamin.

Beauty bites
Keep a face mist at hand à la Tata Harper, the green beauty guru who’s known to “snack” on products from her eponymous brand throughout the day, like hydrating floral essence and anti-aging lip treatment. Think of it as a micro midday spa escape.

Language tidbits
Learn words and pick up conversational phrases in everything from French to High Valyrian using a language app like Duolingo for just a few minutes a day. Among many other benefits, research has found that learning a new language in adulthood stimulates neuroplasticity, increasing grey matter in the brain.

Gratitude interludes
Positive psychology research shows that being grateful is linked to greater happiness. Try the Five Minute Journal to get started, which provides daily prompts for snack-sized reflections.

Now that you know how small lifestyle changes can boost your heath, learn why you should reframe your goals

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