Article: Micro breaks for macro benefits

You’ve most likely heard that it’s important for adults to have micro breaks, but did you know it’s just as important for kids to do the same?  If that’s news to you then get excited because these little gems may well help you as much as they will your students!

To explain, sometimes students may become fidgety or frustrated, disruptive or disengaged, sleepy or stressed simply from not having moved enough.

Moving regularly – even just a little as is the case with micro breaks – increases blood flow and oxygen levels making students feel more awake and alert, and better able to focus and learn.  Moving can take kids out of poor and/or long held postural positions thereby reducing the chance of pain and injury both in the short term and long term.

Students being able to learn about movement breaks and actually practise them in the school classroom environment can set them up with a life-long positive habit they can use at home and in the workplace.

Micro break timer

How often do students need to move?

Every 20 to 45 minutes depending on what students are doing.  For ease we encourage ‘30 every 30’:  30 second movement breaks every 30 minutes. While micro breaks were initially designed to break up seated and sedentary time our suggestion would be to do them regardless, so that they become automatic and serve as a mental break from a task as much as a physical break.

How long do micro breaks need to be?

In a study of surgeons, it was shown that those who had 20-second active micro breaks every 20 minutes performed tasks seven times better than those who hadn’t.  They also had half the levels of physical fatigue and felt less pain in their backs, necks, shoulders and wrists!

Another study of 2019 overseen by Martin Gibala, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, young people who hurried up and down flights of stairs for about 20 seconds three times a day increased their aerobic fitness by about 5 percent after six weeks.

A break of even just a few seconds can be helpful, but for the purposes of incorporating this into a school environment we suggest just 30 seconds.

This time frame is beneficial physiologically and psychologically, is minimally disruptive and likely to not intimidate either teachers or students. No one is going to feel exhausted after them or feel the exercise will be impossible to do for that length of time going into them

If students are doing an hour of activity a day already, isn’t that enough?

Getting in one hour of moderate-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) a day is one thing, breaking up sedentary time is another one altogether but no less important.    Movement needs to be regular and while the reasons we advocate it relate to overall health generally, including mental health, this also may include a reduction in adiposity risk. A study released January 2020 showed that those children breaking up sitting time the most often, with small bouts of physical activity, had the healthiest adiposity indicators, even though they engaged in less total physical activity time compared to other groups!

Can kids do micro breaks by themselves, without teachers?

They could but studies tell us they won’t.  In the surgeon study, despite the spectacular results and the very positive responses from the surgeons, few of them did the exercises unless the nurses enforced them! While teachers don’t have to actually join in, studies do show that kids are more likely to see the movement breaks as important and enjoyable if their teachers do.

Do we really need a programme for this?

Yes. Inviting students to just ‘get up and move a bit’ is a great start if that’s where your school is at but it won’t give you the most bang for your buck.  Without more specifics, the instruction won’t be as motivational or as physiologically beneficial as it could be and as such, not get maximum engagement or the results you’re chasing.