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For an Increasingly Obese Nation, 'Instant Recesses' at Work Could Be a Breakthrough

Obesity and inactivity have been plaguing America for decades.  Each year the problem grows worse despite the best efforts of public-health officials, physicians, nutritionists, exercise experts and individuals themselves.  Why are Americans so out of shape when they know that it’s destroying their health and attacking their pocketbooks? 

“Nature, modern conveniences, popular pastimes like watching TV and playing video games, and the food industry itself make being sedentary more attractive than being active.” says Dr. Toni Yancey, University of California professor and co-director of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity. In her new book, Instant Recess:  Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time (University of California Press, 2010), Yancey presents a practical approach to get America moving and back in shape.

Based on her own experiences running public-health programs on both coasts, along with extensive scientific research, Yancey’s method makes being active the easy choice.  “All too often, you get excited about a new exercise program, but then life gets in the way,” says Yancey, who has been appointed to the board of Partnership for a Healthier America, the nonprofit organization supporting Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative.  “For people to stick with a more active lifestyle, it needs to be built into the very fabric of their work, school and community lives.  That’s what Instant Recess is all about,” Yancey says.

An Instant Recess break is a brief, low-impact, structured group activity for adults and children.  Typically done to music, it is integrated into the organizational routine at work, school, meetings, churches, sports stadiums – any settings in which people gather.  “The concept of recess makes sense to most people, reminding them of a time in their lives when they enjoyed – even craved – the chance to run around and be free,” says Yancey, who has facilitated thousands of recess breaks in situations ranging from grant-review committees, boards of directors meetings and health conferences.  The key, she says, is making activity inescapable.  “Everybody can participate.  Recess activities can be done anywhere, anytime, by anybody, in any attire.”

An ideal opportunity for integrating Instant Recess into people’s lives is the workplace.  The bottom-line benefits are multifold.  Research suggests that structured physical activity during business hours means healthier employees as well as greater productivity, reduced absenteeism, and lower healthcare expenditures – all for little or no cost.  From corporations to small business and from government agencies to nonprofits, core strategies for building Instant Recess into the workday include:

* Incorporating 10-minute exercise breaks during lengthy meetings and at a scheduled time of the day.

* Making standing ovations, instead of sitting and clapping, the standard show of appreciation for speakers.

* Supporting exercise during the routine business day – through walking meetings, or scheduling sit-down meetings at a short distance from attendees’ workspaces.

* Posting stair prompts and asking managers to take the lead in using stairs instead of elevators.

* Including at least 50% healthful and competitively priced food choices in workplace vending machines and cafeterias.

Yancey also offers a detailed look at the extensive work she and others have done to introduce activity into the lives of sedentary Americans in such diverse places as a charter school in Phoenix, a church in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a health clinic and a sorority in Los Angeles.  She describes what’s effective and what doesn’t work, common challenges faced by Instant Recess sites, and what’s required to make Instant Recess a success.  Moreover, she warns that health professionals’ focus on nutrition has largely failed to make a dent in the obesity problem and urges that the emphasis be shifted to give physical activity equal attention.

“Every minute of activity counts, and the less active you are, the more you gain from adding even a few minutes of movement,” Yancey says.  “It’s time to put the policies and practices in place that will make it a lot easier for people to make the active choice and increasingly difficult for them to make the sedentary one.  Easier, like getting the whole stadium up and dancing during halftime shows.  Easier, like having people do dance routines with their co-workers on company time.  Harder, like reserving nearby parking spots only for the disabled.”  

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