Key takeaways:

  • Movement breaks can lead to better retention and understanding of classroom material.
  • Movement breaks can lead to long-term physical and mental health benefits for students.
  • Movement breaks can be simple, and resources on campus can help you!

What is a movement break?

Exercise stretchA movement break is a pause during a sedentary activity, such as a class or lecture, where students engage in physical activity. Movement breaks are short in duration, ranging from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, and can involve a variety of activities.

Movement breaks can increase academic achievement

Research suggests that movement breaks in post-secondary classes lead to increased academic achievement. Extensive literature examines physiological changes in response to physical activity and suggests a positive effect on cognitive performance (Chang et al, 2020).

Research measuring post-secondary students’ activity levels using tracking technology found an association between students with frequent breaks in sedentary time and better academic achievement scores (Felez-Nobrega et al, 2018).

A recent study comparing students in two-hour post-secondary classes which introduced movement breaks after 20 minutes of sedentary behaviour, to students in classes where there were no movement breaks, found students who experienced movement breaks expressed improvements in concentration, alertness, and participation in class (Peiris et al, 2021).

In another study, researchers tested the impact of three 5-minute breaks during a 50-minute computer based lecture. The study found that among the students assigned to the exercise group, there was an increase in measures of on-task attention and test performance (both immediate and delayed assessments) (Fenesi et al, 2018).

Movement breaks promote good physical and mental health

Sedentary behaviours are characterized as low-energy expending activities undertaken while sitting or reclining. Examples include working on a computer while seated and sitting through a lecture. Recent Canadian research has found that post-secondary students spend on average 11.88 hours per day in sedentary behaviours (Moulin & Irwin, 2017).

This level of sedentary behaviour is concerning considering that excessive sedentary behaviours are recognized as a risk factor for several negative health outcomes including chronic conditions such as type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and death from any cause (Thorpe et al, 2011). Sedentary behaviours are also recognized as a risk factor for mental health conditions including depression (Allen et al, 2019) and anxiety (Wang et al, 2019).

Movement breaks are feasible and enjoyable

Researchers have also examined some of the practical and logistical considerations pertaining to the implementation of movement breaks, and have found that the majority of students perceive movement breaks positively. One study which examined the feasibility of movement breaks found that students and in-class tutors perceived that engagement in optional movement breaks was high, and no adverse events were reported (Peiris et al, 2021).

The study also noted the importance of timing: movement breaks were considered disruptive if they didn’t coincide with a natural topic break or change in subject. Students in this study also had more enjoyment from movement breaks if they were considered a complete mental and physical break from the class, such as walking outside, as opposed to movements incorporated into the class content. In another study where regular movement breaks were implemented in a post-secondary class, post-course surveys found that the majority of students perceived the breaks positively, with specific references to increased focus, attentiveness, interaction, and fun (Ferrer & Laughlin, 2017).

Consider the following when incorporating movement breaks into your course planning:

What counts as a movement break?

Movement breaks include many different activities that involve movement. This can include stretches or exercise done in place, or going for a short walk around the room or outside. Movement breaks don’t have to be high intensity. An ideal movement break feels good and is fun for all involved.

Thinking about the goals of the activity will help determine which activity to choose.  Here are some activity suggestions depending on your movement break goal, keeping in mind that all activities should be flexible, adaptable, and optional:

GOAL

ACTIVITY

Enhance focus & concentration

High intensity activities such as jumping jacks or jogging in place.

Community building

Partner activities such as switching desks or a task requiring interaction with peers in various locations of the room.

Reduce stress

Mindful activities such as stretching or yoga poses

What do you hope students take away from this movement?

Movement breaks are an opportunity to inspire the incorporation of movement into students’ routines, and break up sedentary time. By introducing movement breaks into the classroom, you may contribute to evolving assumptions about how lectures should be designed.

Can every student participate in this activity?

Because most movement breaks involve standing up and moving in one place, make sure to include alternative activities to provide accessible options for all students. There are many different ways to introduce movement breaks that are inclusive of students with a range of abilities.  All activities should include options for students who are unable to stand or who have limited energy levels. Examples can be found on the Warrior Brain Breaks page and include:

  • sitting exercises
  • chair yoga
  • progressive muscle relaxation

If possible, review the list of students who have registered with AccessAbility Services when planning movement breaks so that appropriate alternatives can be developed for students who need accommodations, keeping in mind that not all students who have physical limitations are registered with AccessAbility Services.

Always make sure that movement breaks are optional and judgement-free. Students who for whatever reason are not participating in the movement break can be given other options or suggestions for using the break time, such as taking a moment to close their eyes and clear their mind or going for a walk outside of the room.

When would be an optimal time to implement this activity?

Consider the content of the class you are instructing and think about when a movement break would be most beneficial. This might be during a change in content or before a discussion session. You may choose to time the movement break for the middle of the class session, or you may choose to implement two movement breaks a third and two-thirds of the way through. You may prefer to start the class with a movement break, especially if you know the students have already been sedentary for a long period of time.  Movement breaks can also be a great way to start an early morning class.

How do I introduce and lead a movement break?

When introducing a movement break, encourage participation by sharing some of the reasons for the break, such as evidence of enhanced concentration, focus, energy, as well as the long-term health benefits of preventing sedentary behaviours. Movement breaks should be optional, considering the diversity of students of students, and should be introduced without pressure to participate.

Movement breaks can be conducted a variety of ways! You can show a video such as one of the Warrior Brain Breaks. You can put up a slide of exercise positions and ask the class to go through them. You can demonstrate the movements yourself or you can ask a student to lead the movements.  Movement breaks can also be incorporated into online classes, for example, the Instructor for AHS 105 Mental Health Literacy recently included a weekly movement break video as a part of online course materials.

You can connect with Donna Rheams (dmrheams@uwaterloo.ca) at Athletics and Recreation to get support introducing movement breaks.

What is different about in-person versus remote learning movement breaks?

Movement breaks can be implemented for in-person classes or online classes. If in-person, consider the amount of space students have to move, especially if there is a need to maintain a 2-meter distance due to pandemic restrictions. If remote, remind students that their webcams can be on or off as they see fit, as some students might feel more comfortable moving with their camera off.

Resources

References

  • Allen, M.S.;Walter, E.E.; Swann, C. Sedentary behaviour and risk of anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J. Affect. Disord. 2019, 242, 5–13.
  • Chang, Y.K.,  Labban, J.D., Gapin, JI., Etnier, J.L. The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analysis, Brain Research, Volume 1453, 2012, Pages 87-101.
  • Felez-Nobrega, M., Hillman, C.H., Dowd, K.P., Cirera, E., Puig-Ribera, A. ActivPAL™ determined sedentary behaviour, physical activity and academic achievement in college students. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2018, 36:20, 2311-2316.
  • Fenesi, B., Lucibello, K., Kim, J.A., Heisz, J.J., Sweat So You Don’t Forget: Exercise Breaks During a University Lecture Increase On-Task Attention and Learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 2018, 7, 261-269.
  • Ferrer, M. & Laughlin D, Increasing college students’ engagement and physical activity with classroom brain breaks. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 2017, 23 (3), 53-56.
  • Moulin, M., Irwin, J.D. An Assessment of Sedentary Time Among Undergraduate Students at a Canadian University. International Journal of Exercise Science, 2017, 10 (8), 1116-1129.
  • Peiris, C.L.; O’Donoghue, G.; Rippon, L.; Meyers, D.; Hahne, A.; De Noronha, M.; Lynch, J.; Hanson, L.C. Classroom Movement Breaks Reduce Sedentary Behavior and Increase Concentration, Alertness and Enjoyment during University Classes: A Mixed-Methods Feasibility Study. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18, 5589.
  • Thorp, A.A.; Owen, N.; Neuhaus, M.; Dunstan, D.W. Sedentary Behaviors and Subsequent Health Outcomes in Adults: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies, 1996–2011. Am. J. Prev. Med. 2011, 41, 207–215.
  • Wang, X.; Li, Y.; Fan, H. The associations between screen time-based sedentary behaviour and depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health 2019, 19, 1524.

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