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Movement breaks: students re-energize classroom experience at U of T

MoveU members Mandy Tu (left) and Sabrina Fang (right) lead a classroom movement break (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Zhifan Liu, like many other undergraduate students, sits for hours in class. But as a human biology student, he’s keenly aware of the negative effects of prolonged sitting. 

That’s why he decided to help lead classroom movement breaks – a program run by MoveU through the support of U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE). 

“We visit classes for five to 15 minutes and lead students through simple exercises," he said. "It’s a great way to get moving and get your focus back.” 

The pilot program was launched in September 2015 by Danielle Dinunzio, assistant manager of physical activity in KPE. Dinunzio worked closely with Sabrina Azwim, who is pursuing a master’s degree at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. After participating in a movement break led by one of her professors, Azwim says, she recognized the impact it could have for all students.

The two worked with the MoveU Crew, a team of 12 students, to develop the initiative that sends one or two crew members to classes across the downtown Toronto campus. MoveU promotes physical activity as a wellness strategy, helping students to understand how physical activity can lower stress levels, improve sleep patterns and boost concentration.

“The beauty of these breaks is that we can easily adapt them to any classroom setting and audience, and they require little preparation,” says Dinunzio. “We’re trying to teach students healthy learning habits. So later, when they’re in the midst of exams and the pressure is on, they have developed some coping mechanisms.” 

Last year, the MoveU Crew visited 28 classes and this year, they’re set to lead 66 breaks. To further expand their reach, they’re working with U of T’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation and the Faculty of Arts & Science.

University of Toronto Scarborough launched a similar program this summer called Fit-Breaks, developed by alumni Alyona Koulanova and Ary Maharaj. The short bursts of physical activity are led by Athletics and Recreation staff and take place during regular breaks from classroom lectures. 

The team plans to collect data on how the breaks affect grades, retention of information and stress.

These programs are receiving rave reviews from professors and students alike, organizers say. Assistant Professor Sunita Mather in U of T’s department of physical therapy is an avid supporter and has booked multiple breaks throughout the semester.

“We teach exercise physiology and we know that prolonged sitting is bad for your health. But students in this program sit in the classroom for an average of eight hours a day. It’s good for them to see how to deal with this challenge in a practical way, not only for their own health, but also in terms of treating patients who sit for long periods of time.”

What does the future hold?

“The MoveU volunteers want to visit as many classes as possible, but there’s a limit to what they can do,” says Dinunzio. “The team is creating a toolkit that we can give to professors and students so they can easily run the breaks on their own. We want this to become a self-sustaining program and to create long-term healthy habits for students and professors.”

For more information and to book a movement break, visit physical.utoronto.ca/MoveU.