The need for physical activity breaks in the classroom

A February 2013 report brief by Active Living Research [i] examines current literature on how describe the image short physical activity breaks in the classroom may affect overall physical activity, attention span and other measures of health. The report concludes that existing evidence point toward a positive effect of short physical activity breaks in the classroom on overall physical activity, despite the fact that most studies failed to confirm a positive effect in “hard endpoints”, like body mass index, blood pressure, etc. However, these studies also revealed a positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance, an association that has been well established. [ii] The type and duration of the physical activity breaks might vary depending on the age group of the students and on the physical characteristics of the classrooms.

The World Health Organization estimates that over 43 million children under age 5 are obese and 92 million are at risk of overweight. [iii] In the United States childhood obesity has more than doubled in children ages 6 to 11 years and tripled in adolescent between 1980 and 2010; currently almost two out of every ten children aged 6–19 years are obese. [iv]   Given that childhood and adolescent obesity are on the rise worldwide and the fact that once obesity is established it is extremely complicated to resolve, and leads to the development of serious chronic diseases, society should make every effort to prevent it from developing in the first place.

It has been demonstrated that programs promoting short physical activity breaks in the workplace increase productivity in adults. [v] If the majority of adults in the modern world are doomed to work in front of computers or sit on endless meetings, for long periods of time, be it as clerks, writers, academics, professionals, CEOs or politicians, then, establishing a routine for active breaks as early in life as possible makes absolute sense.

The fact that many studies on short physical activity breaks in the classroom have not shown positive “hard-endpoint” results could be related to the degree of the intervention and the short duration of the studies. However, small increments make up for changes in the long term. As with nutrition, every burnt calorie counts in physical activity and will determine body weight and composition.

Finally, it is important to consider the ever-increasing demands on teachers’ time, where an added program could worsen quality in other aspects of teaching or, in this case, hopefully, improve the mood and decrease stress levels in the classroom for students and teachers alike.

The two main factors in the equation of a healthy body weight are nutrition and physical activity. In the physical activity side of the equation, evidence points to the fact that the modern sedentary lifestyle is a major factor. Unfortunately there is no magic bullet. Yet given the fact that children spend about six hours a day, 30 hours a week sitting in the classroom , it seems appropriate to develop strategies to introduce physical activity breaks in the classroom, though these are no replacement for appropriate physical education classes, active commute to school, active recess and participation in sports and physically active extracurricular activities like dancing. As with any other activities, short bouts of physical activity in the classroom, if they become part of a daily routine, will be more likely to become a habit.

[i] //

[ii] CDC. The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010. Available at

[iii] World Health Organization


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  • Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among US children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association 2012;307(5):483-490.)
  • (National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2011: With Special Features on Socioeconomic Status and Health. Hyattsville, MD; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012.

[v]    Integration of short bouts of physical activity into organizational routine a systematic review of the literature. Barr-Anderson DJ, AuYoung M, Whitt-Glover MC, Glenn BA, Yancey AK. Am J Prev Med. 2011 Jan;40(1):76-93. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2010.09.033. Review. PMID: 21146772 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE].

Dr. Chiriboga obtained his postgraduate training in Preventive Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and School of Public Health. He designed and implemented a comprehensive healthcare system for the indigenous people in central Ecuador 1988-2001.  He served as Minister of Health in Ecuador (2010-11) where he undertook a major re-structure of the healthcare system of the country. He also served as President of the Health Council for the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) 2010, bringing key draft resolutions regarding generic medicines and research and development of medicines for neglected diseases, and a proposal for the need to re-structure the World Health Organization, which were approved by the World Health Assembly.  Dr. Chiriboga was the keynote speaker for the European Union Conference in Global Health held in Brussels in 2010. His interests include global health equity, the development of affordable universal health care systems, as well as multisectorial prevention strategies.

Dr. Chiriboga will be one of many speakers at Wheelock College’s International Conference .