Increase student energy, stamina and endurance through a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) classroom

It’s October and fall has officially arrived!  The school year is now in full-swing and with any luck (and of course, a great deal of effort), you and your students have settled into a routine.  Fall can be a welcome relief, with its cooler temperatures, changing leaves, and an array of fun seasonal activities to experience with your students.  However, this time of year also has its share of challenges.  You may now be at, or nearing the end of, the honeymoon phase with your class.  During those first weeks of the year, students are often on their best behavior and the novelty of the new school year still breeds energy and excitement in the classroom.

But what happens when the energy (and the honeymoon) begin to fade?  Often, after a honeymoon period comes a phase of comfort, and even complacency.  This is the opposite of what we want for our students academically.  Yes, we want students to feel comfortable in their classroom community.  But with the right support, a little academic discomfort can help students develop stamina and perseverance.  Pushing students outside of their comfort zone can also lead to bursts of energy, and the kind of energy teachers want, with students engaged in their learning activities and excited about overcoming a classroom challenge.

The Endurance Challenge

Helping students work outside their comfort zone is easier said than done.  In fact, it might be even against our biological nature.  Our human brain is an organ, but in many ways, it behaves like a muscle.  Just like your biceps, triceps, or abdominals, your brain becomes stronger with use.  However, also like a muscle, the brain is designed to conserve, rather than expend energy.  A recent Edutopia article highlighted this phenomenon, and explained that because the brain is wired to save its energy, our first instinct is often to shy away from activities that are cognitively demanding.  The article calls this the principle of least effort, “the idea that people apply nominal effort to achieve a basically acceptable result instead of pushing themselves in pursuit of greatness.”

To help students overcome this instinct, Edutopia suggests that teachers plan activities to trick their students’ minds into working at their maximum level for a sustained period.  It provided a list of what it calls HIICA (High-Intensity In Class Activities), or tasks to push students to work at that maximum level.

Mental (and Physical!) Fitness in the Classroom

There is a connection between these HIICA tasks and the shorter but intense exercises that define High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts at the gym.  HIIT workouts alternate between intense intervals of physical work and periods of “active recovery”, where the body is still moving, but at a slower and simpler pace.  Many who have tried this model of exercise tout its immediate and noticeable impact on their physical fitness, and their physique.  When you give 100% effort for short periods of time, the body actually responds faster than it does to a lesser level of effort over a longer timeframe.  It is also easier to stick with this kind of workout, because the periods of extreme effort are shorter.

We loved the link between HIICA in the classroom and HIIT at the gym and thought we might take this connection a bit further.  In the era of classrooms characterized by cell phones and fidget-spinners, it’s clear that our students need some variety and movement in their day.  What would happen if we created classrooms with intense HIICA learning periods, but coupled them with active recovery periods where students moved their bodies while resting their brains? This type of learning would help students build the stamina they need to stay engaged and grow academically, while also allowing them freedom to “get their wiggles out” and move toward the 60 minutes of daily movement recommended for children by the CDC.  Consider alternating 15-30 minutes of high intensity academic work with 5-10 minute periods of body movement to allow the mind to recover and re-energize.

Making it Happen

If, like many teachers, you’ve just finished setting up your classroom, teaching your routines, and are just now scratching the surface of your curriculum, the idea of changing up your teaching style might feel overwhelming.  However, there is no need to stress; the internet has got you covered.

Edutopia’s list is a good place jumpstart your use of HIICA activities.  There are also a wide variety of resources available to help increase your use of movement in your classroom.  GoNoodle has an extensive list of songs, dances, and activities to bring movement and mindfulness to your students.  If you teach older students who feel they are just too cool to dance in your classroom, the Department of Kinesiology at East Carolina University came up with a manual full of classroom energizers that are even approved by the most discriminating middle-schoolers.  And don’t be shy about drawing on what might be the greatest resource of all – your fellow teachers!

If you create a great HIIT unit, submit it to Atlas Exemplars to inspire other teachers, and share it with us at [email protected].  Reach out to us to share ideas along the way and let us know how we can help!

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