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Promising Practices, Well at Work, Well-being

How you can start taking more effective breaks – and inspire your students and colleagues to do the same

Why getting outside is the best medicine for busy teachers

As teachers, we often grumble amongst ourselves during break time as we walk briskly through the halls and come across students who are either glued to their smartphones or sitting or leaning on lockers. “No social skills,” we confidently diagnose. “No one talks to each other anymore,” we lament. Our lost suggestion of “they should go outside and run around” is as empty as the playground itself. As we make our way to the staff room to check our mailboxes, we then promptly head back to our classrooms to frantically check items off our to-do list – emails, assignments that need grading, or spaces that need tidying up. After the break, everyone returns to class just a little bit less focused and certainly more fatigued, and it’s clear that we haven’t effectively used our break time.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A ‘BREAK’ AND AN ‘EFFECTIVE BREAK’

Everyone can benefit from taking a step back and reconsidering how they spend their breaks throughout the school day. Sure, our students can benefit from “going outside and running around,” but so can adults! There are three things we need to remind ourselves when it comes to taking an effective break during our workdays, which can literally restore our brains and rest our minds if we put these into practice: 

  1. It’s NEVER unproductive or ‘time lost’ to spend our breaks getting a bit of physical activity.
  2. Spending our breaks in the outdoors allows us to return to work refreshed and rested.
  3. Leaving our smartphones and devices behind every now and then may actually allow us to reconnect with others – or at least give our brains a rest.

Integrating these reminders into our daily work lives represents an attempt at reorienting our minds to the idea that taking time out isn’t just about ‘being productive’; rather, it’s about ‘enabling productivity.’ While ‘being productive’ might imply merely “being busy” and checking things off our to-do list, ‘enabling productivity’ means investing in healthy practices – like taking an effective break – that allow our brains to perform better and for longer, thereby allowing us to do our best work instead of simply getting work done. 

We also know that sedentary behaviours and physical inactivity are directly linked to all kinds of chronic health issues. This is true for all age groups from the younger years to the older years. We also know that sleep, nutrition, and screen time are variables in our personal wellness equation. So how do we put these all together and ensure that we’re getting enough of each of these variables? The good news is that the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology has created a very articulate set of evidence-based infographics that allow the general public to make sense of all of the health recommendations that often get thrown at us. Fundamentally, what you need to know is that all types of movement are important: slow, moderate, and vigorous. And remember that there isn’t anything wrong with sitting down, but it’s also important to limit how long we remain sedentary while making sure that we’re not inactive for extended periods of time. 

Sweat, Step, Sleep, and Sit are the so-called Four S’s of a healthy day. While the nuts and bolts of these four components differ depending on how old you are, the core recommendation is that we all need to pay attention to how long we: 

1. Sweat through moderate to vigorous physical activity on the playground, during physical education, while leading extracurricular activities, or during our own workout routines. 

2. Step through light physical activity during unstructured play, walking, or practicing ‘body movement breaks’ throughout the day.

3. Sleep without interruption and with consistent bedtime and wake-up times. 

4. Sit and limit sedentary behaviour through the day.

 


Shannon Kell Quote 2

Never forget – as a school community, we have the ability to encourage each other to be more physically active. Although a 7-minute walk around the block with colleagues during lunch hour may not work up a sweat, it’s nevertheless valuable in improving our overall mood. Creating opportunities for students and staff to move together during breaks is also a great way for us to sustain our collective well-being as a school community. 

WHY RECESS ISN’T JUST FOR KIDS

There’s a clear connection between our well-being and being outdoors. Throughout the day, our brains get tired and our cognitive functions decrease. Some of the more obvious symptoms of cognitive fatigue include reduced performance and productivity, decreased effectiveness in completing tasks, and reduced competency. But some of the less obvious symptoms, which may manifest in students and staff, include impulsiveness and increased risk taking, irritability and negative emotions, insensitivity to interpersonal cues, and impatience. Do any of these symptoms sound like you or your students after a morning of indoor recess? 

Research on cognitive restoration has found that exposure to natural environments helps aid recovery from physiological stress and mental fatigue. In fact, Kaplan’s ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ (ART) has been around for decades and is still used by researchers to this day. ART tells us that being in nature gives us a sense of ‘being away’ by shifting our attention from whatever demands we may be experiencing in our workplace, which helps restore our cognitive functions. Plus, we don’t need to go far – the schoolyard, neighbourhood park, or even our backyards provide this healthy sense of ‘being away.’ We also don’t need to spend lengthy amounts of time outdoors, either – brief contact with nature can boost our mood, with research recommending 20 minutes as the optimal amount of time to reap the benefits of spending time outdoors. Above all, even making small efforts to take deep breaths or look around at the trees can leave our brains feeling a bit more rested and a bit more restored.

Shannon kell Quote 3

WHY YOU NEED TO PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE 

Addiction to technology and excessive use of online communications is directly related to psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Although we may not personally consider ourselves technology addicts, we know that taking an effective break during the day doesn’t entail using our devices or other technology. In fact, walking around, sitting, and looking at our devices while spending time outdoors actually counteracts the benefits that nature provides. Unsurprisingly, overuse of our devices is a growing issue that’s most prevalent in people under the age of 30. That said, I’m sure we can all agree that time away from our screens is refreshing. Promoting social activities on the playground, inviting colleagues to take a ‘walking meeting’ outside instead of a typical ‘sit down meeting’ in a classroom, or even just taking a ‘time out’ from our devices are all great ways that we can role model taking effective breaks throughout the day. 

THE TAKEAWAY: WE NEED TO RETHINK ‘PRODUCTIVITY’

I’m just as guilty as the next person for feeling a strong desire to be productive during my breaks by working through my to-do list. At times, I’m guilty of not taking a break at all – I hate being cold in the middle of winter and I cringe at the thought of stepping out in the rain. However, when we begin reorienting our minds towards the importance of taking effective breaks that entail (A) moving around more during the day, (B) getting outside, and (C) leaving our devices behind, we may actually begin to see some changes in our behaviour, concentration, and ability to learn new skills at work. It’s easy to tell our students that “they should go outside and run around” but, as adults and role models, we’d be better off actually taking a piece of our own advice.

Atchley, R. A., Dtrayer, D. L. & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PloS one, 7(12), e51474. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0051474

Berto, R. (2014). The role of nature in coping with psycho-physiological stress: A literature review on restorativeness. Behavioral Sciences, 4, 394-409.         https://doi.org/10.3390/bs4040394

Capaldi, C. A., Passmore, H., Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Dopko, R. L. (2015). Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention. International Journal of Wellbeing, (5)4. https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v5i4.449

Hartig, T., Evans, G., Jamner, L. D., Davis, D. S., & Garling, T. (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 109-123.  https://doi.org/10.1016/S0272-4944(02)00109-3

Hunter, M. R., Gillespie, B. W., & Chen, S. Y-P. (2019). Urban nature experiences reduce stress in the context of daily life based on salivary biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology, (2)722, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722

Jiang, B., Schmillen, R., & Sullivan, W. C. (2018). How to waste a break: Using portable electronic devices substantially counteracts attention enhancement effects of green       spaces. Environment and Behavior,1-28.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916518788603

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182. https://doi.org/10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2

Lee, U., Lee, J., Ko, M., Lee, C., Kim, Y., Yang, S. & Song, J. (2014). Hooked on smartphones: An exploratory study on smartphone overuse among college students. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2327-2336). https://doi.org/10.1145/2556288.2557366

Pearson, D. G., & Craig, T. (2014). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(1178). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178 

Meet the Expert(s)

Shannon Kell

Dr. Shannon Kell

Assistant Professor, Mont royal University

Shannon teaches in the Department of Health and Physical Education, as well as the Department of Education at Mount Royal University with particular interests in Physical Literacy, Physical Education and Undergraduate Research.

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