Public health professors inject physical activity into the classroom

February 18/2015

How many times have you sat for hours in class, eyelids drooping, attention waning?

Since you are not alone, two Dalla Lana School of Public Health professors have introduced “fit breaks” to their class to reduce sedentary behaviours, combat fatigue and improve concentration.

“I was relieved to hear that we would be having fit breaks —I often find my concentration drifting after longer periods of time simply due to sitting in the same position for so long feeling stiff and restless,” said Lauren Caruana, a Master’s of Science Community Health student in the School’s inaugural fit break class.

“I appreciate the opportunity to move without disrupting the class and to move more actively than simply walking down the hall. I also find that I can get into more workouts more fluidly when I go to the gym if I move throughout the day.”

Since the first day of class in January, Drs. Ananya Banerjee and Jackie Bender have incorporated multiple three-minute fit breaks into their three-hour lectures in the form of dance routines, stretch sessions or any moderate to vigorous physical activity that forces students to move.

“From sitting in classes all day to required-reading marathons, students are prone to sedentary behaviours,” said Banerjee, who co-teaches the Health Behaviour and Change course with Bender at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“If the new public health message is to reduce sedentary behaviour, public health professionals need to practice what they preach,” continued Banerjee, who is also a registered kinesiologist at Women’s College Hospital. Banerjee wears a Fit Bit, a watch-like device that monitors physical activity, and says she’s burned upwards of 120 calories in one three and a half minute fit break.

At first, some students were agnostic or even reluctant to the fit break idea, but now many students volunteer to lead the breaks and consider them an integral part of the class.

“I was neutral initially.  I casually thought that it would be a nice nod to the fact that we are all too sedentary,” said Leonora Regenstreif, also a Master’s of Science Community Health student.

“It came as a complete surprise to me that my heart rate went up and I felt much more alert.  I did not expect to feel better able to absorb information and participate more because of a few minutes of activity, but I really feel invigorated afterwards!”

DLSPH professor and alumna Jackie Bender says the fit breaks energize and increase productivity of both students and professors.

“The fit breaks have evolved organically and virally – it’s a great way for students to take leadership over sections of the class and express their creativity”, said Bender.

Bender and Banerjee are planning a research study on the effects of fit breaks on students and hope the U of T community takes notice.

“We are trying to create a movement. We hope to train other professors and lecturers at U of T and make it a part of classes across the university.”