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by Christina Elston
Jennifer Yruegas knew that her playing time was paying off when she beat all of her 10-year-old son’s friends at “four square.” Not the social media check-in platform – the playground game. And she didn’t perfect her four-square skills during school recess like the third-graders she’d bested; she learned to play during recess – at work!
Admit it, you just smiled at that idea. Health experts and a growing number of employers are counting on that to lure you, and eventually your entire family, into their updated idea of “recess,” which they say could get Americans in the habit of moving more and sitting less, and clamp down on the annual waistline expansion that is endangering our health. The best part is that recess can happen anywhere – at school, yes, but also at your workplace with colleagues, or in your own backyard with family.
Most adults remember recess as the best part of their school day, says Toni Yancey, M.D., MPH, a professor in the Department of Health Services at UCLA and author of the 2010 book Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes At a Time.
Unlike the negative feeling people often connect with exercise, recess “captures the idea of fun and stress relief and exuberance – linking that with physical activity,” Yancey says.
It’s also a great way to hook the non-athletes among us, because during recess as a kid, “even if you weren’t an athlete, you went out and ran around,” she says.
While a 10- to 20-minute recess break every day is enough to help stop the “average, sedentary, overweight adult American” from gaining the pound a year that most do, this tiny boost in activity has lots of other benefits as well. It improves mood, brain function and morale, and can even help foster cooperation among co-workers.
But the biggest benefit of regular “recess” could be in the habit itself. Recess builds people’s confidence, and makes them more comfortable moving and more likely to move during the rest of their day. Data from ongoing studies of adult recess programs at work is even beginning to show that it makes people more active during their after-work hours, Yancey says. “We think that kind of makes sense, because they become more fit and exercise becomes more comfortable.”
At first, Yruegas didn’t see how recess would fit into her 12-hour days as general counsel for KEEN, a manufacturer of outdoor casual footwear, bags and socks. She says her first thought upon hearing about her employer’s new “Recess Is Back” initiative was, “Well, I’m very busy.” Her days were already packed, and employee-participation programs she had seen at other companies tended to be gimmicky and short-lived.
But the recess program, put together with Yancey’s help, fit in well with KEEN’s already-playful company culture, and before she knew it she found herself discovering four square, a game she says she missed out on as a child, “which I think I would have been a huge talent at.”
Soon she was playing at least one or two games a day. She hid her new skills from her son, Logan, who regaled his parents every night with tales of his four-square adventures on the playground. On the last day of school, she joined a four-square game with Logan’s class, emerging victorious and earning her son’s pride and “street cred” with his classmates.
“The only kid out there I couldn’t beat was Logan,” she laughs, “which was a good thing because it would have made the car ride home difficult.”
KEEN eventually took its program on the road, and during the past year they have presented “Recess Is Back” to 170 different companies and built a social media fan base of nearly 70,000.
At KEEN headquarters, there are mini-baseball and four-square courts right in the center of the workspace. But you don’t need to convert a conference room to make recess happen where you work.
KEEN makes its program available to all. Online, the Recess Is Back section of keenfootwear.com (www.keenfootwear.com/us/en/recess) includes a complete tool kit for bringing recess to your office in a big, institutional way. But it also has fun ideas for your own, personal recess breaks – everything from tree climbing and “mime ball” (for those who want to play baseball but have no equipment) to 10-minute walks and quick yoga poses. Or you could grab some chalk and try a playground game like four square or hop scotch in the parking lot.
The “at work” section of Keen’s Recess Is Back online program also has fun videos that set an office-friendly workout to a dance beat. These are similar to videos Yancey created, which are available through JourneyWorks (www.journeyworks.com/Instant-Recess/products/255/). Yancey says these are fun enough to distract people from the fact that they are moving, and are designed to work for even exercise beginners. “People kind of auto-adjust the intensity to fit their own fitness level,” she says.
Whatever you do at recess, try to move at the intensity of a brisk walk, the kind of pace that would let you finish a mile and a half in 30 minutes. And just like recess at school, recess at work is a whole lot more fun if you’re out there with friends. All you really need to get you started is one other person. Commit to having recess breaks together for a week, and you’ll see that it’s contagious. “People see it and they want to participate,” says Yruegas.
Meetings offer another recess opportunity. For an assembly that’s planned to last a few hours, approach the organizer and offer to bring in one of the recess videos Yancey created as an “activity break” that will give folks a chance to stretch. There are probably snacks and drinks at your meeting. Why not a little movement?
When people give it a try, they’ll likely say things like, “I haven’t moved this much since gym class.”
“First of all, it’s a wake-up call,” says Yancey. “But then people find that they could do it, and it wasn’t so bad, and they didn’t break a sweat and have to go change their clothes, and they could do it again. It builds their confidence.”
At work, Yruegas tries to do one or two recess breaks a day, and she has found that it actually helps her get things done. “By taking that 10-minute break I am so much more productive when I come back than if I tried to power through with a cup of coffee and a Coke,” she says. She finds herself doing twice the work in less time.
And now she and her family have recess at home as well – including four square. “We’ve figured out how to play it with three,” Yruegas says. “Because Logan is so fit, we make him cover two squares.” They also play croquet and hula hoop together, and hike.
And if weather gets in the way “we just do something crazy inside. If it’s time for dinner, we’ll see who can do the most jumping jacks before we sit down,” she says.
Christina Elston is a senior editor and health writer for Dominion Parenting Media. Read Health-e, her family health blog, at www.parenthood.com/healthe.php.
Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes At a Time, by Toni Yancey, M.D., MPH, University of California Press, 2010. Yancey proposes 10-minute exercise breaks using music and dance for school, work, home and community life. These instant recesses, she believes, are the answer to sedentary lifestyles that have led to weight gain nationwide.
JourneyWorks – www.journeyworks.com/Instant-Recess/products/255/ – This product site features physician and book author Toni Yancey’s booklets and music videos for 10-minute “instant recess” breaks at work, home or in the community.
Recess at Work – www.keenfootwear.com/us/en/recess – This footwear company started a recess-at-work initiative with its employees and has proposed the program to more than 170 companies nationwide. The website offers a toolkit for bringing recess to your workplace or home with activity ideas and music videos.
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