Brain Breaks: A Solution or A Compromise?

In recent years, much has been made about the erosion of physical education in our school systems. Children have become resigned to sitting for long periods of time, while pressured instructors introduce more content than time allows for. While much attention has been paid to the time our children now spend sedentary, it appears many schools have found their answer to this issue in the form of “Brain Breaks”.

Brain Breaks are brief spikes in activity designed to energize kids in order to help them retain information provided to them in the classroom. They’ve become the solution for school districts who have de-emphasized physical literacy, physical education, and movement fundamentals in favor of the core curriculum and the cultivation of the academic pedigree.

Several months ago, I asked my children if they ever got fidgety or restless from sitting in class all day at school, knowing they each only participate in formal physical education once per week. I also asked them if they received any instruction from teachers in the classroom about proper movement fundamentals while learning core material. Our exchange went something like this:

Dad: “How was school today?”

Kids: “It was good. We learned a lot.”

Dad: “Great! Did you do anything in the classroom that involved learning while moving around into different positions and locations in the class?”

Kids: “No – we don’t do that.”

Dad: “Why not?”

Kids: “Because we take Brain Breaks instead!”

Dad: “What’s a Brain Break?”

Kids: “It’s when we get tired and can’t learn anymore. The teacher tells us to go run a few laps around our classroom and then come back.”

Dad: “Do you like it?”

Kids: “We LOVE it! We wish we could do them more often.”

Initially, I was relieved. Fearing my kids bound to a desk all day except lunchtime and the occasional recess makes me worry about their physical literacy and long-term health. However, the more I thought about this, the more it made me question the motive and purpose of these so called “breaks.” I began to wonder:

1.    If the research is unequivocal that movement enhances the learning process, why is it being abandoned in our school systems in the first place?

2.    Are these breaks actually controlling behavior and improving attention, or a justification for jamming in the volume of desired class content more effectively? If the latter, it seems more like manipulation.

3.     If my kids love them so much, doesn’t this say something about their craving for more than just a “break”?

4.    Isn’t there a way for teachers to get their content covered, and our children to get the movement they crave?

The more thought I gave to these questions, the more I found the purpose of Brain Breaks confusing and misguided. Why? Because what we do know about neuroscience and the developing brain appears to suggest a clearer path in favor of physical literacy. For example:

1.    Movement enhances learning by stimulating intrinsic motivational influencers. This hormone and neurotransmitter response awakens the brain and is fundamental to learning, and when kids are seated this response does not occur, causing the brain to idle.

2.    The human brain cannot learn an unlimited amount of content in one sitting. Retention (processing) actually occurs after information has been learned. Retention improves while moving versus sitting.

3.    Longer periods of processing after learning allow for sustained energy over time (preventing fatigue), versus the spikes in arousal short breaks induce.

This knowledge seems to fly in the face of the Brain Break concept. Despite the pressures and time constraints many educators face today to prioritize academic preparation (which has undoubtedly contributed to the death of physical education), Brain Breaks have become a compromise not fully utilized in practice and not fully supported by neuroscience. What we do know is our children desire more consistent movement, and the research supports their need for it. When it comes to ensuring the long-term mobility and health of our kids, is a compromise the best we can do?


Scott C. Anderson MA, ATC
Director of Athletic Training
Stanford University