"Instant Recess:" Poetry, research and memory in one inspiring package
When Toni Yancey gave me a copy of Instant Recess, her new book published by UC Press, I diligently began reading, expecting measured and important public health advice, solid research, all carefully relayed in an academic tone.
I knew to anticipate great ideas from Dr. Yancey, a UCLA public health professor who serves on the advisory board of our program, The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships. What I didn't anticipate was a practical book also filled with poetry, musings on race, culture, identity and health and many a personal reminiscence. I found myself sneaking moments to read Instant Recess in the early morning when my kids were asleep and late at night. In the end, I found it to be a revelatory book. Its central idea is so simple that even my elementary school-aged children immediately got it: Adults need recess too. They need to move, even if it's only for 10 minutes at a stretch. And employers and leisure entertainment companies should try to find ways to make it happen to help their own bottom line.
I'm sure that many of you, like me, know that glassy, stiff feeling that comes from three hours sitting in front of your computer, working away while barely moving. We've all seen the toll of this inactivity in the high rate of chronic disease that can begin in middle age or, increasingly, even earlier. But it's hard to fit exercise in, especially the way I want to do it. I never did train for that marathon. I rarely manage these days to lift weights every day followed by a hard jog. It's so easy to cede on exercise once I conclude that the super-fitness I strive for cannot be achieved. Dr. Yancey gives me hope because she encourages us to take it a step at a time. She points to research that shows that mini-breaks for exercise during the day can yield important protective benefits for long term health. And she reminds us of the pure joy of movement that often seems to get left behind along with childhood.
Along the way, Dr. Yancey also offers personal stories of what she found encouraging and, at times, deeply discouraging, as a young African-American girl who loved sports – without many people to encourage her ability or inclination in school. Those personal stories contain many ideas, interspersed with research, that could help school districts, churches and other institutions to rethink the way they approach sports for girls. I asked Dr. Yancey what prompted her to write such an unconventional public health book. She told me that she started out trying to make it accessible to the general public -- not too stuffy. In the process, she recaptured her own voice, because she has been writing poetry for a long time.
As for me, after diving into Dr. Yancey's book, I'm realizing anew the benefits of a ritual from my childhood. My boys and I walk – or run -- to school every day and we've done so since they were in kindergarten. It's a way to chat with the neighbor, pat the dogs we know, check out the flowers and catch up with other kids. Who knew that just 10-15 minutes each way could also help us all live longer? Dr. Yancey can evoke the pure pleasure of it, gently encouraging us to get back on our feet. Here's her poem on the topic, reprinted with permission.
Now I know And if you can recapture
Y'all can remember Even a little of the joy
The recess bell Of unbridled movement
The wave of exhilaration Then just maybe
The sigh of relief There's hope
The sheer release For the couch potatoes
The transformation Those of you
Of fidgeting Too worn down
Into linear motion Even to fidget
Raise up your hands Think you need rest and food
If you can remember But you toss and turn in bed
All that pent-up energy And meals don't really sit well
Exploding These bodies just weren't meant
Into air and space For so much sittin' and standin'
And wind and sunshine And so little recess
T ___ (April 3, 1996)