On-Site Exercise to Combat “The New Smoking”

Students enjoy participating in exercise breaks during classes – with benefits for academic performance and motivation

“Sitting is the new smoking” is a phrase that frequently appears in current publications on health-related matters. The University of Lübeck is now taking steps to help prevent excessively long, unhealthy periods of sitting, including during lectures and seminars. The initiator of this “on-site exercise” is Prof. Dr. Edgar Voltmer, who has been the university’s Professor for the Promotion of Health in Student and Working Life since February. In cooperation with Prof. Dr. Kerstin Lüdtke, head of the university’s physiotherapy study programme, exercise breaks led by physiotherapy students will be introduced in selected classes.

As part of its “Healthy University” initiative, the university has already been offering these exercise breaks two days a week to employees for over a year. They have proven to be a great success. The 2019 summer semester sees this offer being extended to, initially, two lectures in STEM subject study programmes, and a day-long compact seminar spread over one week in the medicine programme.

“Students, in particular, gain from the fact that, in addition to the health benefits, exercise stimulates circulation and (cerebral) blood flow and thus boosts concentration and performance,” says Prof. Edgar Voltmer. “It has also been demonstrated that exercise promotes neural activity and activates the brain’s reward system. These are all processes that aid students’ important ability to learn and retain information as well as boosting their motivation.”

”I am glad to see the positive mood during the exercise break and really have the impression that students’ attention improved afterwards,” says the head of study programmes in the STEM Section, Prof. Dr. Till Tantau.

Physiotherapy students provide instruction to their fellow students in the STEM subjects.

Research shows that long, uninterrupted periods of sitting, so typical in today’s office environment but also while studying, harms health. The time spent sitting while studying or at leisure quickly adds up to nine or more hours a day. Research shows that these periods spent sitting cannot be fully compensated for by exercise that takes place outside work or the study environment.

Instead, it is necessary to incorporate regular active exercise breaks into these sedentary periods. The breaks do not have to be long. Just a few minutes of exercise after 30 to 90 minutes spent sitting were shown to have a positive effect on health.

From the start of the initiative, the instruction provided by physiotherapy students for STEM subject students, and in a planned second phase for students of medicine, has proven to be an additional motivating factor. “It’s such a joy for us to see how something that we learn for use with patients can also be enthusiastically received by a large group of our fellow students,” is how Lotte Heimes and Abdallah Ahmed, who are in the fourth semester of their physiotherapy programme, describe their experience of leading these on-site exercise breaks.

“For our physiotherapy students, this initiative represents a welcome broadening of experience in terms of how they can apply their knowledge in their future profession,” says Prof. Kerstin Lüdtke.

The aim is to gain insight from this pilot project so as to be able to consolidate the offer in other classes. “It would be nice if we managed to create a situation in which every teacher or student community that also wishes to integrate exercise breaks into classes does so via a booking system of the sort that is already common at other universities,” says Prof. Edgar Voltmer with regard to continuing the initiative.

Exercise breaks during class (Photo: René Kube / University of Lübeck)