As childhood obesity continues to rise and physical education classes are replaced by academics, elementary schools are searching for ways to incorporate the federally mandated half-hour of physical activity into the school day.
In-class exercise tends to put off many teachers who believe that the burst of activity in the classroom will disrupt learning. But new research suggests that mini exercise breaks during the school day may actually work quite well.
In a series of five studies, researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) confirmed that 2-minute bursts of in-class exercise not only increased the amount of daily exercise for students, but did so without hurting math performance. In fact, when the exercise breaks were incorporated into classrooms throughout southeast Michigan, teachers found the breaks quite doable, and in some cases, could even enhance learning.
“Teachers were worried it would make kids more rowdy, but 99 percent of kids were back on task within 30 seconds of doing activity breaks,” said lead researcher Dr. Rebecca Hasson, U-M associate professor of kinesiology and nutritional sciences.
“We even had one teacher who did an activity break in the middle of a math exam — she realized the benefit of getting them up and moving.”
Hasson is the director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory, which collaborated on the five studies with the U-M schools of public health, education, and architecture and urban planning, and Project Healthy Schools, a statewide community-Michigan Medicine collaborative.
“What we’re showing is that we can give kids an additional 16 minutes of health-enhancing physical activity,” Hasson said. And while 16 minutes doesn’t sound like much, it adds up, Hasson said. Children are supposed to get an hour of exercise a day — 30 minutes of that during school. Most don’t reach that number.
“Many kids don’t have PE every day but they might have recess, and if they get 10 more minutes of activity there, it would meet that school requirement,” Hasson said. “This doesn’t replace PE, it’s a supplement. We’re trying to create a culture of health throughout the entire school day, not just in the gym.”
The Active Class Space lab studies observed the effects of activity breaks on mood, cognition, appetite and overall physical activity of 39 children in Hasson’s lab. A study done in real classrooms tested the practicality of implementing inPACT (Interrupting Prolonged sitting with ACTivity), the exercise program developed by Hasson and her colleagues.
In the lab, child volunteers ages 7-11 participated in four experiments: eight hours of sitting, interrupted with two-minute low-, moderate- or high-intensity activity breaks, and eight hours of sitting interrupted with two minutes of sedentary screen time.
The researchers found that when the sitting was interrupted with high-intensity activity breaks, children maintained their usual activity levels away from the laboratory, thereby burning an additional 150 calories a day without overeating. Unlike adults, children in the study didn’t compensate for the increased exercise by sitting around after school or by eating more, Hasson said.
While mood was ranked higher immediately following the screen-time breaks compared to the activity breaks, children reported positive mood during both the sedentary and exercise conditions, and they subsequently rated the activity breaks as more fun.
Importantly, after high-intensity activity, overweight and obese children experienced improved moods all day, Hasson said. This suggests children reflected upon the exercise and took more satisfaction in it.
All of the activity breaks resulted in the same level of math performance, and when Hasson brought the exercise breaks to real classrooms, teachers found they were feasible.
“We got a lot of pushback at first. The fear was that teachers would be overloaded,” Hasson said. “Teachers get a lot of stuff thrown at them. Our experience was that teachers were all very positive about exercise. They know it’s good for the kids. They were open to the idea but they needed more information on how to do it safely.”
At first, the researchers suggested that teachers do 10 3-minute breaks, but most teachers averaged between five and six breaks — about 15-18 minutes of activity. Schools in disadvantaged districts didn’t complete as many activity breaks as schools in wealthier districts.
Hasson is currently working to eliminate this disparity by adding elements of game playing like point scoring, competition, or reward systems to increase physical activity enjoyment in the children.
Based on the findings thus far, Hasson wants to try five 4-minute activity breaks totaling 20 minutes and observe the impact on mood, activity levels, calorie intake and cognition.
Source: University of Michigan