Why Movement Is the Killer App for Nonprofits

February 24, 2014 4 Comments


Enjoy these simple and powerful guidelines from Beth Kanter about how movement makes meetings and workshops more productive. This is great advice for getting beyond designing for “brains on sticks” as my colleague Curtis Ogden likes to say.

As a trainer and facilitator who works with nonprofit organizations and staffers, you have to be obsessed with learning theory to design and deliver effective instruction, have productive meetings, or embark on your own self-directed learning path. Learning theory is an attempt to describe how people learn. There are many learning theories and can be categorized in different ways:

  • External: These theories take into account self-learning and learning in groups. This includes behaviorism and social learning or peer learning, communities of practice, and connectivism.
  • Internal: These theories take into account our minds and bodies. How people think and process information are one set of theories that include multiple intelligences, learning styles, and constructivism. There are also physical theories like brain-based learning and neuroscience.

As a trainer, I’ve seen first hand the power of movement and how it helps wakes up a disengaged audience. I watch participants’ body language like a hawk, and every 20 minutes or so I make sure that the delivery mode changes. You begin to pick up a second sense of feeling when people in the room are getting tired and have lost their focus. That’s when you can add a brief stretch break, energizer, or incorporate an exercise that requires getting up and moving around. Movement does not distract learners – although some audiences are so formal and stilted they aren’t use to moving and the initial discomfort to asking them to move can make you believe otherwise. When participants move, oxygen to the brain increases, thereby enhancing both learning and memory. People can’t be as focused on content when they have been sitting longer than 20 minutes.

I came across a brain scan by Dr. Chuck Hillman from University of Illinois Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory. The lab does research on the relationship between physical fitness and cognitive function. The scan shows a comparison of the brain after sitting vs walking for 20 minutes. There is more red in the walking scan which shows more connections in the brain and more ability to concentrate and that is good for learning. The sitting brain is really disengaged.

In Sharon Bowman’s “Using Brain Science To Make Science Stick” offers several simple principles to incorporate based on brain science, including: Movement is better than sitting. Here are some techniques you can incorporate into your training and staff meetings that will help with learning and retention.

1. Body Breaks: Incorporate some sort of movement or body activity every ten minutes. One technique that I use all the time is “share pairs,” it makes people get it up, take that body break, and check in with someone. Here’s adescription of some other body breaks that I’ve used – these are simply stretches and energizers. They help “air out the brain” and can help a tired group regain focus. I incorporate energizers into webinars (see slide 22) and virtual meetings.

2. Walk and Talk: If you have taken a training with me, you know that won’t be sitting in your chair for long. I might have them sit and discuss a small group exercise, but the results are on the wall for a standing debrief. It is a more structured body break and incorporates more in-depth debrief on content. I’ve done this as a reflection exercise towards the end of a multiple day training or full day training. Here’s some examples.

3. Wall Writing: This an exercise where participants will write specific responses on labeled charts on the wall at designated times. It can be an answer to a question, a question learners still have, a summary statement, an opinion about the content, facts they want to remember, or how they plan to use the content. I often incorporate sticky notes and often have to rearrange the furniture.

I’m doing a panel at the NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference in March called “Learn You Will” with colleagues John Kenyon, Andrea Barry, and Cindy Leonard. It is a session about designing effective nonprofit training where we will discuss and model these techniques and much more. Training design and delivery is the heart and soul of my professional work for the past 35 years and I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to co-design and facilitate a jam-packed session on the whole topic of how to design so people learn.

You can also apply brain theory to designing and facilitating meetings at work. Here’s some ideas:

1. Shorter Meetings: We schedule one-hour meetings and conference calls in our organizations by default. Do we need to the whole hour to accomplish the same amount of work? What if nonprofits made a rule about meeting length and experimented with 30 minutes meetings or conference calls? Would we get the same amount done in less time?

2. Walking Meetings: This can be hard to implement in organizations where the work is culture is sit at your desk or office for meetings and walking around is perceived to be “goofing off.” But given that a twenty minute walk lights up the brain and is more healthy than sitting.

3. Incorporate Learning Theory Into Meeting Agendas: What if you designed your meeting to consider how people take in and retain information (learning theory) than the list of agenda points you need to agree on? Wouldn’t this make for more fun and productive meetings?

Not all our work inside of nonprofit organizations is dependent on working and collaborating with groups of people, there is time when we have to work alone – writing reports, thinking through strategy, researching, planning, and other tasks. What if we disciplined ourselves to get up from our desks every 20-30 minutes and walked around to reboot our brains? What if we didn’t use our keyboard as a lunch tray and took a walk? What if we did a call on our cell phone while taking a walk outside?

How do you incorporate movement into your nonprofit work day – either for working alone or with groups? If you are trainer, how do you use movement to keep people engaged and learning?


  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Indeed! Thanks for reposting, Cynthia. Not only is movement the killer app, not moving can literally be a killer. One of the reasons I invested in a standing desk and do more and more walking meetings!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Someone said at a retreat I facilitated last week that sitting is the new smoking. sobering to know the adverse health affects of simply sitting for too long!

  • Genuinely no matter if someone doesn’t understand afterward its
    up to other viewers that they will help, so here it takes place.

  • aaa says:

    Hola! I’ve been reading your weblog for some time now and finally
    got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Tx!
    Just wanted to say keep up the great job!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *