Including movement breaks in your class sessions
7 December 2022
A movement break is a pause during sedentary activity, such as a lecture, where students engage in physical activity for 30 seconds to 10 minutes. Movement breaks are simple and can have many benefits for students.
Excessive sedentary behaviours are recognised 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), as well as mental health conditions including depression (Allen et al., 2019) and anxiety (Wang et al., 2019). Yet, post-secondary students spend approximately half a day in sedentary behaviours (Moulin & Irwin, 2017).
Movement breaks can lead to better retention and understanding of course material, increased on-task attention and test performance (both immediate and delayed assessments) (Fenesi et al., 2018), improvements in concentration, alertness, and participation in class (Peiris et al., 2021), increased cognitive performance (Chang et al., 2020) and better academic achievement scores (Felez-Nobrega et al., 2018). They also have long-term physical and mental health benefits.
Students perceive movement breaks positively, with specific references to increased focus, attentiveness, interaction, and fun (Ferrer & Laughlin, 2017), while in another study, students and in-class tutors perceive that engagement in optional movement breaks was high, reporting no adverse events (Peiris et al., 2021). The most enjoyment occurs when the movement break is a complete mental and physical break from the class, such as walking outside, as opposed to movements incorporated into the class content (Peiris et al., 2021).
Try to coincide movement breaks with a natural topic break or change in subject to avoid them being considered disruptive. You could time the movement break for the middle of the class session, or you could implement two movement breaks a third and two-thirds of the way through. If you know the students have already been sedentary for a long period of time before your class, you may prefer to start your class session with a movement break. Movement breaks can also be a great way to start an early morning class.
An ideal movement break feels good and is fun for all involved. Movement breaks should be optional, consider the diversity of physical capabilities, and should be introduced without pressure to participate. Movement breaks include many different activities including stretches, breathing, exercise, or a short walk around the room or outside. All activities should include options for students who are unable to participate or do not feel comfortable participating for whatever reason. Alternatives could include asking students to close their eyes and clear their mind, or activities such as sitting exercises, chair yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation as explained on the Warrior Brain Breaks page. When determining which activity to use, think about your movement break goal, for example:
- To enhance focus and concentration, choose high intensity activities such as star jumps or jogging on the spot.
- To build community, try partner activities such as switching desks or a task requiring interaction with peers in various locations of the room.
- To reduce stress, try mindful activities such as stretching or yoga poses.
Introducing a movement break
Movement breaks can be used in face-to-face, hybrid, and online class sessions of any duration. Let online students know that they are welcome to have their cameras on or off during the 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.
With many benefits for students, have a go at including a movement break in your next class session.
Adapted from Integrating Movement Breaks Into Your Class. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo. Accessed from: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/creating-positive-learning-environment/integrating-movement-breaks-your-class
Allen, M. S., Walter, E. E., & Swann, C. (2019). Sedentary behaviour and risk of anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 242, 5-13.
Chang, Y. K., Labban, J. D., Gapin, J. I., and Etnier, J. L. (2012). The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Brain Research, 1453, 87-101.
Felez-Nobrega, M., Hillman, C. H., Dowd, K. P., Cirera, E., and Puig-Ribera, A. (2018). ActivPAL™ determined sedentary behaviour, physical activity and academic achievement in college students. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(20), 2311-2316.
Fenesi, B., Lucibello, K., Kim, J. A., and Heisz, J. J. (2018). 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, 7, 261-269.
Ferrer, M. & Laughlin D. (2017). Increasing college students’ engagement and physical activity with classroom brain breaks. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 23(3), 53-56.
Moulin, M., and Irwin, J.D. (2017). An assessment of sedentary time among undergraduate students at a Canadian university. International Journal of Exercise Science, 10(8), 1116-1129.
Peiris, C. L., O’Donoghue, G., Rippon, L., Meyers, D., Hahne, A., De Noronha, M., Lynch, J., and Hanson, L. C. (2021). Classroom movement breaks reduce sedentary behavior and increase concentration, alertness and enjoyment during university classes: A mixed-methods feasibility study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18, 5589.
Thorp, A. A., Owen, N., Neuhaus, M., and Dunstan, D. W. (2011). Sedentary behaviors and subsequent health outcomes in adults: A systematic review of longitudinal studies, 1996–2011. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 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.