How to Encourage Physical Activity as Part of a Learning Strategy

How to Encourage Physical Activity as Part of a Learning Strategy


Richard Nantel


The year 2012 will likely be remembered as the "Get Off Your Butt" year. In recent months, major studies have been published indicating that sitting for extended periods dramatically increases our risk of getting a wide range of diseases and significantly shortens our lives. How dangerous is sitting for long periods? Studies published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that people who sit for the majority of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of a heart attack. The bad news is that exercise has little impact if it does not replace time sitting. If you feel smug about hitting the gym before going to work and sitting all day, you shouldn't. Getting up and walking around, or working at a standing desk rather than seated, should be a priority for desk-bound knowledge workers. As if dying weren't motivation enough, research continues to indicate that physical activity improves brain health and ability to learn.

According to a study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even exercising for just 20 minutes improves information processing and memory functions. The bottom line is that our days should be filled with non-seated physical activity. As learning professionals, we're part of the problem. Much of the learning content and events we create are traditionally designed to be accessed by sedentary learners seated at a desk. Since it isn't good for business to kill your customers, we should be using the latest scientific research to create learning content and events that:

  • Improve learning
  • Contribute to the quality of life of our learners

Here are some ideas on designing learning that encourages activity other than sitting:

  • Have you organized a full day, on site workshop? Have people first meet at a remote location such as a coffee shop for initial orientation. Then, have them walk 20 minutes to where the next session will take place. Yes, it will potentially be hot/cold/raining/snowing/windy. That's what outside looks like. Your learners will arrive for the next session with brains caffeinated and oxygenated, a match made in heaven for learning. Taking a break for lunch? Don't order in. Walk to a restaurant or remote location. Since a large number of your learners will attend this workshop wearing shoes that weren't designed for walking, it's best to let them know in advance that they will not be seated all day.
  • In instructor-led sessions, create activities where learners need to stand. One common example would be to have learners get up and write on a whiteboard. Or, have them review learning content while standing at a table rather than handing out materials to seated learners.
  • Classroom-based, instructor-led sessions are synonymous with coffee and donuts. Rather than having these items in the classroom, place these things far away in another room. Yes, we can have a donut but we'll need to work for it.
  • In traditional online learning, keep lessons short. Many learners will feel they can't leave a lesson midway. Short lessons allows them to engage with learning content yet take breaks.
  • Remember podcasts? No, they aren't dead. In fact, some of the greatest content on the Web (such as my beloved, mind-blowing RadioLab) is available as a podcast. Audio podcasts on MP3 players free learners from looking at a screen. This allows them to learn while walking. Perfect.
  • Add prompts to learning content to let people know they can take a break and move around. Sometimes, people just need a reminder.

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