WORKOUT WEDNESDAY: Taking a Break for Fitness!

Written by Emily Wheeler

A popular phrase heard in the public health world these days is “sitting is the new smoking.” This age of technology continues to contribute to the obesity epidemic in the United States by making it too convenient to live a sedentary lifestyle, and technology definitely isn’t the only excuse! People have jobs, schoolwork, and other responsibilities that may require them to sit for a large portion of the day, and by the time they get home they are often too tired or unmotivated, or just too busy with other things to dedicate any time to physical activity.

People often associate obesity with increased health risks such as high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, coronary artery disease, and some cancers, but these health risks are also all associated with sedentary lifestyles, independent of BMI. Physical inactivity is also a risk factor for anxiety and depression, and physically active overweight and obese individuals have a greatly reduced risk for many obesity-associated health conditions compared to those who are both obese and inactive (1).

Many schools and workplaces are doing their part to help their students and employees to incorporate more physical activity into their days by adding short, 10-minute fitness breaks into the school or workday. While the increase in fitness break popularity is a recent occurrence, the idea itself has been talked about for several years. In fact, 15 years ago the company L.L. Bean incorporated 5-minute exercise breaks, three times per day, for employees in the assembly plant and saw a 30-minute return in workday productivity from their 15-minute investment.

In 2009, NPR Morning Edition shared a story of Dr. Toni Yancey of UCLA, who frequently speaks at conferences about increasing physical activity in the workplace with standing meeting and mini exercise breaks. She describes the benefits of encouraging physical activity in these settings, including the fact that it doesn’t require any extra time out of the day and that people are much more likely and willing to get up and exercise in a group than by themselves. She states that some people frown and seem hesitant when she begins a mini fitness session because they are not used to exercising in public, if at all, but according to Yancey, the key is that “they do it because everyone else is doing it. We’re social beings. The motivation is social (2).”

These short fitness breaks can also be a great way to help the people who need it the most get the most benefit out of the exercise. Because the breaks are instructed  and include fun, up-beat music, people are motivated to join when they have someone there to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it and simply to smile with them. This can be a huge contrast to many peoples’ first attempts to start exercising on their own if they experience frustration, confusion, or lack of motivation when trying to do it alone. The fitness breaks also teach participants the skills to know what to do as safe and effective forms of physical activity if they choose to exercise on their own.

I have had the opportunity to personally hear about or participate in two such activities in North Carolina this year! At Walter Johnson Middle School in my hometown of Morganton, North Carolina, sixth through eighth grade teachers are required to incorporate 20 minutes of physical activity into their class time. Some teachers, my lovely mother included, are using simple and fun resources such as Just Dance (and interactive dance game made for Wii) videos posted on Youtube to engage their students, both restless and sleepy, in a few minutes of fun physical activity during school hours.

Here at UNC, a group of students in the Gillings School of Global Public Health has researched and planned a new fitness breaks program called Capstone WOW Fitness Breaks for housekeeping, grounds, and facilities maintenance staff of the University that starts next week!  During the six-week program, student volunteers will be leading 10-minute fitness breaks at the beginning at each of the three daily shifts at varying central locations on campus on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Eighteen different fitness breaks will be held in varying locations every single day of the program, starting at times ranging from 6am to 12am to accommodate first, second, and third shift! I will have the opportunity to lead a few of these fitness breaks each week, and I am so amazed by the hard work and dedication that went into planning this program to improve the health of so many staff members on campus.

Ten minutes a day may not seem like much, but it can make a big difference in the health of students, employees, and others when incorporated into a pre-existing daily routine. Subtracting sedentary time from each day can promote healthier habits, reduce health risks, increase productivity, and create happier and healthier students and employees!


  1. Risks of Physical Inactivity. Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.,P00218/. Accessed February 5, 2015.
  2. Neighmond, Patti. Expert: 10-Minute Workouts Can Have Big Payoff. NPR Morning Edition. Accessed February 5, 2015.

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