Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Students Need More Exercise. Here’s How to Add Activity Without Disrupting Learning

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 03, 2023 6 min read
Students in Brooke Smith’s class dance as they participate in an exercise through the InPACT program during the school day at North Elementary School in Birch Run, Mich., on March 2, 2023.
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Sharie Murray noticed the benefits of getting kids moving during the pandemic.

The K-3 special education teacher and her colleagues at North Elementary School in Birch Run, Mich., started to use short exercise videos to keep students occupied during waiting times over Zoom, but Murray said getting students’ blood moving also helped them focus more during the virtual class periods.

“It was amazing,” Murray said. “The [activity] break allows the kids to escape a bit, use their energy to perform a dance or workout piece or whatever, and then the kids are able to regroup and then focus on the task at hand. And once we were able to get back into the norm in class, we wanted to pilot it” in person.

North Elementary and others in the Birch Run area school district have been ramping up short, four to five-minute activity breaks as part of InPACT, short for Interrupting Prolonged sitting with ACTivity, a University of Michigan-Ann Arbor program focused on boosting physical activity in classrooms to improve students’ fitness, attention, and mental health. In the process, researchers and educators hope to make the common class activity break more high-impact.

“This isn’t something new, but [schools] are just not doing activity breaks consistently and they’re running into too many barriers,” said Rebecca Hasson, an associate professor of movement science and the director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. “There are so many things being put on a teacher’s plate right now. Sometimes classroom activity breaks and physical activity programs are just one more thing that teachers have to fit into their curriculum, one more thing that they have to try to organize.”

While the vast majority of K-8 teachers report using at least some physical activity breaks in their classes, Hasson and her colleagues found that only about 1 in 5 teachers provide at least 10 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous activity during class. That’s the minimum recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine for school-age children and adolescents, and it requires exercise intense enough that a child boosts his heart rate and perspires, but can still talk without gasping for breath.

The need to get kids moving has become more urgent in the last few years. U.S. children and adolescents get 17 fewer minutes a day of even moderate exercise today than they did before 2020, and fewer than 1 in 10 of those ages 6-17 now meet the federal recommendations of at least 60 minutes total of moderate-to-vigorous daily exercise, according to the U.S. Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. That’s less than half the share of children who got enough exercise in 2018. And the drops in exercise were especially pronounced among students in poverty.

Lifting barriers to exercise

While activity breaks have gained traction in schools in the last decade, large-scale studies of physical activity in the classroom have shown mixed effects based on the wide variation in how schools implement them.

“It appears from the outside that school is one of the ideal settings [to increase students’ activity levels,” said Joseph Donnelly, professor of internal medicine and director of physical activity and weight management science at the University of Kansas Medical Center. He studies the long-term effects of school-based physical activity programs. “Schools have the physical structure, a history of physical education, so they’re delivering some sort of movement, they have educated people—it seems sort of like a no-brainer. But it’s very difficult in the modern school to get teachers on board to sacrifice time for physical activity.”

Students in Brooke Smith’s class dance as they participate in an exercise through the InPACT program during the school day at North Elementary School in Birch Run, Mich., on March 2, 2023.

Hasson and her colleagues found that higher-poverty schools tended to have more barriers to implementing physical activity breaks effectively: They had less free space, fewer resources, and teacher professional development options related to integrating physical activity in class, and more pressure to use school time only for academic instruction. And while most of the high-poverty schools Hasson studied did have student wellness policies, they focused mainly on nutrition rather than exercise. Classroom activity was not integrated into the schools’ broader plans for student wellness.

As a result, the higher-poverty schools averaged only about eight minutes of activity breaks a day, compared to 16 minutes a day in high-income, highly resourced schools.

“That compounds over time as you look at that per week, per month, per academic year, considering all the different benefits that come with regular physical activity and engagement in the classroom, … because high-resourced schools already have many different opportunities for kids to be physically active inside and outside of school,” Hasson said. “That’s why implementation and equity have to go hand in hand.”

Teachers participating in InPACT were trained in how to manage classroom behavior during breaks, guide students’ exercise intensity using prompts and tempo cues, and arrange their classroom spaces to make it easier to transition to and from activities. Educators also had access to a library of 200 activities and short videos they could use during breaks.

Kristine Paquette, the principal of Birch Run’s North Elementary, said some teachers use the activity breaks to reinforce lessons, such as kindergarten teachers using counting songs or phonics. But Heather Erwin, a professor of kinesiology and health promotion at the University of Kentucky and editor of the Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, said analyses of dozens of studies find activity breaks that include academic content don’t seem to be more or less effective in boosting students’ attention and activity levels. It’s more important that students keep their heart rates up over the break and do a few breaks over the course of the day.

“You can have these ‘exercise snacks’ … these small bursts throughout the day,” Hasson said, who structured InPACT around four-minute activity breaks scattered through the day. “So, 20 minutes sounds very overwhelming to a teacher who has not implemented activity breaks, but we can start with one break, allow teachers to establish their classroom procedures and then they can increase it over time as the breaks become more comfortable for them and their students. Even with one minute, you can start to see improvements in energy and refocusing, but we have found that four minutes gives you a nice burst of energy and primes the brain for learning.”

Improving mental and physical health

Paquette said her teachers use the activity breaks as much for mental well-being as for physical health. The school has integrated the program into its positive behavioral intervention and supports system for managing students with behavior issues.

“We want healthy kids, we want physically fit kids. We want kids that are able to mentally self-regulate,” Paquette said. “At the outset, people were really concerned about time because time is always such a precious commodity. … But we notice when teachers use it that it helps students stay in the classroom versus being sent to the office for a timeout of some sort or a reprimand.”

Murray, North Elementary’s special education teacher, said the breaks have been particularly effective for students with anxiety or attention-deficit disorders. She now uses five or more four-minute breaks over the course of a typical day, usually during transitions.

“Movement was a huge behavior management piece for me personally,” Murray said. “You could have your lesson plan and think you have to hurry up—get through chapter 6.5 before going to chapter seven because our standardized test is coming—but the more you’re dealing with behavior the longer it takes, and if you stop and give them a quick break, you’re not gonna be wasting as much time dealing with behaviors because they’ve been able to exert that energy somewhere else.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Students Need More Exercise. Here’s How to Add Activity Without Disrupting Learning

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