Physical activity breaks in the classroom can help ramp up student fitness and increase attention—or turn into a chaotic hassle that teachers work to avoid.
Fewer than 9 percent of school-age children and adolescents get enough exercise each day, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that incorporating regular doses of at least moderately intensive exercise in the classroom can improve students’ attention, behavior, learning, and fitness levels.
Health and education experts gave advice on how to make the most of activity breaks, with the least classroom disruption.
1. Plan your time
Time is often the most limited resource for teachers, and doing a time-cost analysis before implementing classroom activity breaks can improve teacher- and student buy-in, according to Rebecca Hasson, an associate professor of movement science and the director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. School leaders and staff should look at instructional pacing during the school day, as well as student behavior data, to identify times where exercise could improve students’ focus.
That could mean using activity breaks to bookend class transitions or challenging lessons, or adding more activity during periods that historically have had more student behavior referrals. Some teachers may prefer to do two 10-minute breaks, while others use several five-minute breaks.
“There’s this argument that the more physical activity you do, the more it takes away from seated instruction,” Hasson said. “But I would argue just because students are sitting there quietly does not necessarily mean that they’re actually paying attention and learning. Physical activity, especially if you do it consistently … is associated with improved standardized testing, improved academic achievements.”
2. Align academics where possible—but don’t sweat it
Physical activity breaks can improve students’ focus regardless of whether they involve academic content, said Heather Erwin, a professor of kinesiology and health promotion at the University of Kentucky.
“Academic-based activity breaks are just as good as other physical activity,” she said. “Perhaps students do a number of jumping jacks for a response to a math question. Or, the teacher asks a question and if it’s true, the students do this activity but if it’s false, they do another activity.”
Kristine Paquette, the principal at North Elementary in Birch Run, Mich., said teachers at her school share ways to add action into lesson plans. “The team is really great about sending out weekly suggestions of activities they’ve vetted as high quality,” she said. “For example, my kindergarten teachers use a lot of counting and skip-counting videos for their activities.”
3. Support teacher activity, too
Teachers need significantly more training and support in ways to make lessons more active, said Joseph Donnelly, professor of internal medicine and director of physical activity and weight-management science at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“Maybe you’re 55 years old, OK, and now all of a sudden you’re asked to do 10 minutes, twice a day of physical activity,” he said. “You’ve never led physical activity in your life. You have professional clothing on, you have inappropriate footwear—you’re going to push back.”
Erwin advised schools to give teachers flexibility on the clothes they wear and the option to take students outside for some classes to make it easier to lead more active lessons.
“I think COVID brought that out in many ways—how important physical activity is and fresh air and getting outside is for kids. Teachers are pretty supportive and continue to want students to get more activity,” she said. “But it’s important for teachers to feel comfortable doing it.”
4. Plan for transitions
Classroom management can be one of the biggest challenges for teachers in using physical activity breaks, studies find. Hasson and her colleagues advised teachers to use two acronym cues to manage student behavior around activity breaks:
- MOVE into an activity break, meaning that students have materials down, open space, voices quiet, and ears listening; and
- FOCUS when coming out of a break, meaning that students: find their seats, open books, calm breathing, use ears to listen, and silence their voices.
5. Integrate activity breaks into overall wellness policies
Only 17 states require minimum physical activity time in schools, and only Colorado explicitly requires classroom activity breaks. Classroom breaks can’t substitute for students getting recess and physical education, and Erwin said it’s important for school and district leaders to plan classroom physical activity as part of larger policies.
For example, she said school behavior policies should avoid punishing student misbehavior by removing physical activities.
“It kills me to see when recess is like 20 minutes, and oftentimes the teachers would use students’ behavior against them by cutting out part of recess,” she said. “They need that activity ... recess should be a protected time for kids, so unless a behavior happens at recess, it shouldn’t be punished at recess.”