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Instant Recess promotes health for adults by making exercise a group activity

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By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, May 27, 2010

At precisely 1:05 p.m., Stacey Thompson announced, "Okay. It's time!" Within seconds, a dozen co-workers in her downtown Washington office had gathered by the reception desk to march in place, roll their shoulders and prepare to dance.

The employees of Summit Health Institute for Research and Education (SHIRE), a nonprofit organization that fights obesity, are fittingly among the first in the city to embrace Instant Recess, a nationwide push to establish a daily 10-minute exercise break. Think coffee break or cigarette break, but good for you.

"This is hard for folks to ignore. You can't say, 'I didn't know it was happening.' And if your boss has time to do it, so do you," said SHIRE's executive director, Ruth Perot, who removed her purple blazer to participate (but kept her pearls on).

Vigorous moves such as lifting your arms and kicking your legs back elevate the heart rate, but the routines are accessible to everyone, from the 20-something interns to 79-year-old senior project associate Canary Girardeau. Even a woman who wandered into the office to ask a question joined in for a minute.

There's no doubt this ritual looks weird -- just ask the delivery guy who stood outside the office window snickering. But it shouldn't. And it won't, predicts UCLA professor Toni Yancey, who created Instant Recess and has a forthcoming book on the topic. "In five years, Instant Recess will be in Congress, churches, waiting rooms," she says. "Once the opportunity is available, people will take it."

It's about to become more available, as Instant Recess is the calling card for the new National Physical Activity Plan. Announced this month by a coalition of 20 partners from the public and private sectors, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, YMCA and AARP, the plan aims to change our national culture to make exercise part of everyone's lives. The strategies include encouraging programs at workplaces and schools, making physical activity a "vital sign" that doctors discuss with patients, and integrating activity into transportation plans by prioritizing sidewalks, bike lanes and trails.

"There's no single action that can solve this problem," says the University of South Carolina's Russell Pate, chairman of the plan. For too long, experts have clung to the idea that if you tell people they need to exercise, they will. But when many of them hear recommendations that they should be active for an hour a day or walk 10,000 steps, they get overwhelmed. "We've learned the hard way that giving people advice and encouragement isn't getting it done," he says.

So instead of targeting individuals, the plan is going after society. As Shellie Pfohl, the newly named executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, puts it: "We've engineered exercise out of our daily lives. Now we have to engineer it back in."

That means little changes, such as keeping stairwells well lit -- and maybe having some inspiring music pumped in -- to make climbing more attractive than riding the elevator. It also means bigger changes, such as making neighborhoods safer so people don't feel as though they're in danger if they take a stroll outside.

Ensuring that the wonders of the outdoors are readily available to everyone is particularly important to National Recreation and Park Association chief executive Barbara Tulipane, who's also on board with the plan.

"I'm excited to get people to understand that it's not that hard. You don't have to wear a heart rate monitor," she says. "It's as simple as taking a walk in the park." (And getting more funding for park and recreation programs.)

What also makes the plan stand out is that it's not just kids' stuff. Most of the attention these days has been focused on childhood obesity, and while that's a critical concern, people of all ages have grown too sedentary. So it's vital to let adults know that they're not a lost cause, especially because they're the ones who can shape society -- and a whole lot of bodies while they're at it.

I suggest they start with an Instant Recess.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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