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Genius Breaks: Moving stress out of the school and work day

As teachers and students interact in the classroom, they have unique and distinct needs with regards to classroom engagement and well-being. Student engagement can take many forms (i.e. behavioral, emotional and cognitive) and can influence the likelihood of dropping out of school, academic performance, and overall well-being. (Finn and Zimmer, 2012). Teacher engagement is heavily influenced by teacher worker stress: one in four teachers rate their jobs as either very or extremely stressful (Unterbrink, Hack, Pfeifer, Buhl-Griehaber, Müller, Wesche, et al., 2007), and early career teachers have a 46% burnout rate in the first 5 years (Jalongo, & Heider, 2006). This paper will introduce the reader to a research-based health and well-being intervention designed to improve teacher and student stress (health) and engagement (well-being) outcomes, by encouraging “genius breaks” to be taken during the school or work day. Since 2008, the intervention has been delivered to 100+ schools and organizations throughout the United States, including the international offices of the Pan American / World Health Organization (2013; 2014; 2015). Although the intervention has not yet been tested in an intervention-design protocol, it is currently (2018) being piloted in schools in VA, MD, and Washington, DC.

Genius Breaks (Carmack, 2017) is a health and well-being intervention designed to improve both stress reduction and performance outcomes by empowering individuals to (1) counteract the adverse health and well-being risks of sedentarism (sitting disease) with daily movement; (2) reduce stress by practicing breathing techniques as an embodied form of mindfulness and (3) re-frame challenging performance stressors during the work or school day through the act of sense-making (Carmack, 2014; Dervin and Foreman-Wernet, 2012). 

Originated in 2008 by the author as the “Centeredbeing” intervention, this public health intervention was re-titled and re-developed in 2017 based on target population feedback. The genius break intervention promotes the daily performance of mini-breaks of “movement, mindfulness and meaning” during the work or school day, as a way to give participants an action plan for counteracting daily occupational and/or academic stress. The intervention’s dissemination is targeted to school and corporate organizations, in order to (1) adapt the intervention to the unique needs of the organization’s physical environment and to (2) promote social support and organizational/cultural norms for ongoing performance of daily practices.

When first introduced to the genius break intervention, participants are encouraged by a certified genius break trainer to engage in break-taking throughout the workday. As part of this discussion, the difference between a “bio break” and a “genius break” is emphasized. Participants are encouraged to conceptualize a genius break as a way for that individual can ‘embrace their own kind of genius,’ (Carmack, 2017).  The genius break trainer encourages participants to realize that break-taking is an important consideration for their work or school day for their performance outcomes in the short-term and their health outcomes in the long-term.

After participants are introduced to the concept of a genius break, and the health and well-being outcomes they are designed to promote, participants are then introduced to the genius break menu of “movement, mindfulness and meaning.” The participant is encouraged to make an appropriate selection by first self-reflecting on the particular stressors within their work or school day, and to then consider which stress reduction technique/s (i.e. mindfulness, movement and/or meaning) would feel most appropriate for their real-time needs. This choice-making is an important component of the intervention, since autonomy has been found to be an effective component in behavior change campaigns (see Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory.) The act of self-reflection and feeling-based decision-making is also intended to connect the participant with their self-regulation skills.

The movement portion of the genius break menu integrates multi-planar movements that sustain functional health with postures including but not limited to yoga asanas. These movements are typically performed in a genius break with a chair, so that participants have high perceived behavioral control (see Ajzen, 2002) over the act of break-taking: they can perform the movement right at their desk. Participants are taught to create a movement pattern that meets the daily requirements of their “mindful movement vitamin,” which is the author’s (Carmack, 2017; 2012; 2009) protocol for ensuring that all major joint actions have been engaged in. This mindful movement vitamin is introduced through a “2/4/6/8/10” framework, where participants are encouraged to move their elbows and knees in “two” directions; their spine in “four” directions; their hips in “six” directions and their shoulders (glenohumeral joint) in “eight” directions, and to take “ten” deep breaths while ensuring that the body has moved for “ten minutes per day.”

The movement portion of the intervention is the central component of the genius break, and is designed to help address one of the key contributing risk factors for the conditions of overweight and obesity is physical inactivity -- a failure to meet weekly exercise guidelines, and/or the performance of prolonged bouts of daily sitting behavior. According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is the fourth highest global health risk. (WHO, 2009). Sedentarism, or “sitting disease” as it is more commonly called by the public (Hellmich, 2014), is associated with “premature mortality, chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, metabolic syndrome, and obesity” (Pronk, Katz, Lowry, Payfer, 2012). Prolonged bouts of sitting behavior can not only increase these comorbidity factors; they also have a negative impact on functional health – the ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL’s). When an individual engages in prolonged bouts of physical inactivity, especially prolonged bouts of sitting behavior, their range of motion becomes diminished, which in turn compromises their ability to perform locomotor activities associated with daily function.

Research exploring “activity breaks” as a potential solution for prolonged bouts of sitting behavior is limited, yet promising.


            “[B]reaks in prolonged sitting time have been correlated with beneficial metabolic profiles among adults, suggesting that frequent breaks in sedentary activity may explain lower health risk related to waist circumference, body mass index (BMI), triglyceride levels, and 2-hour plasma glucose levels.” (Pronk, Katz, Lowry, Payfer, 2012)


Although it has been shown that physical activity in classroom environments can improve academic achievement (Donnelly and Lambourne, 2011), there is limited research exploring interventions that promote physical activity in the classroom.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of integrating movement into the work or school day, the genius break menu also includes the choice to practice mindfulness. The mindfulness portion of the genius break menu integrates breath practices similar to basic yoga pranayama techniques. Participants are taught to regulate their stress response with breath practices designed to either heighten their awareness or bring them back into balance. Equal ratio breath is introduced to help participants to heighten their overall mind-body awareness; in this technique practitioners breathe in for the same count as they breathe out. Solar breath (longer inhales) is introduced to help participants to increase their energy (i.e. rev up); in this technique participants breathe in longer than they breathe out. Lunar breath (longer inhales) is introduced to help participants to decrease their energy (i.e. calm down); in this technique participants breathe out longer than they breathe in. They are then taught that they can practice these breath techniques on their own (without movement) or to combine them with movement in order to optimize their genius break.

According to a theoretical article by Roesser, Skinner, Beer and Jennigs (2012), mindfulness programs have the potential to help teachers to develop “habits of mind” that can simultaneously promote both teacher worker health and improve student classroom engagement.

In addition to offer practitioners the option of practicing movement, mindfulness, or both, the genius break intervention also includes a “meaning” selection on the genius break menu. The meaning portion of the genius break menu introduces participants to the chakras of communication framework (Carmack 2007; 2017). This framework is inspired by the chakra framework from Eastern medicine practices, and consists of 8 communication themes that are embodied in difference centers of the body: respect (feet); gratitude (hips); commitment (torso); courage (heart); kindness (mouth, hands); insight (forehead); community (crown) and consciousness (whole body). Participants are encouraged to consider how one of these themes of “meaning” can help them to make a new and/or desired “meaning” around their current stressors. This technique is inspired by the sense-making work of Dervin and Foreman-Wernet (2012) and the author’s centered well-being theory (Carmack, 2014). The meaning application helps to contextualize the mindfulness and/or movement into an expression of these themes – combining the story-telling components of a dance performance and stylized gesture with the specific and intentional meaning of non-verbal communication.

For example, while reaching one arm up to the ceiling and bending to the side, the participant can choose to combine all three components of the genius break.  They can (1) move knowing which joint action they are undertaking to help fulfill their daily mindful movement vitamin requirement; (2) mindfully using an equal ratio breath technique; (3) with meaning feel as though the movement is helping them to express a gesture of them “reaching for their goals.” The participant is not only benefiting from moving (i.e. receiving a physical activity benefit) and doing so mindfully (i.e. receiving an emotional regulation benefit); they are also reframing how they are engaged with their day (i.e. receiving a stress response benefit, since the stress response is based in part on the individuals’ perception of a given stressor.)

While Genius Breaks (Carmack, 2017) is designed to be individual-driven in its implementation and practice, with participants deciding on a daily basis how exactly they will practice their genius break, it does hold potential for promoting both health and well-being in academic and occupational settings. One key curriculum component that genius break trainers are taught to emphasize is the importance of encouraging participants to not think of genius breaks that they practice alone – but instead as a practice that is “more fun when shared.” In this way, the act of genius break-taking holds promise to help improve individual health and well-being outcomes, and to promote a well-being-supportive culture within school and other organizational environments.  Future studies should explore whether or not stress levels of teachers and students are impacted by the intervention, and to decipher which dose levels (i.e. genius break frequency throughout the school or work day) are optimal for promoting work and school day performance and overall health and well-being.


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Genius Breaks: Moving stress out of the school and work day
Collection 2018 Contemplative Practices for 21st Century Higher Education
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Dr. Suzie Carmack, PhD, MFA, MEd, ERYT
Year published 2018
UID mandala-texts-47671