Rebecca Hasson: Former volleyball star helps kids stay active … at home

June 3, 2021
Written By:
Mike Wood

Rebecca Hasson

Rebecca Hasson, an associate professor of movement science, has spent her entire academic career trying to level the playing field so all kids can get the exercise they need to live healthier lives.

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Mike Wood: Welcome back to another episode of Michigan News, Beyond the Headlines from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I’m Mike Wood, I’m the host of the podcast that takes you beyond the headlines to meet University of Michigan faculty in the news. Rebecca Hasson is an associate professor of movement, science and director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology. She’s also an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the School of Public Health here at the UofM. As a former college athlete, it’s no surprise that she’s an avid runner, but you may be surprised at what else she likes to do to wind down.


Wood: During the covid-19 pandemic, Rebecca and her team have partnered with the state of Michigan and others to create a statewide exercise program to help kids stay active at home.


Wood: And via Zoom, she’s here with us now. Hi, Rebecca.

Rebecca Hasson: Hi, Mike. How’s it going?

Wood: Excellent. Well, we first met several years ago when I did an interview with you about childhood obesity. And then we did another couple of videos highlighting your research on finding ways for kids to exercise in the classroom. Since then, your Inpact at School exercise program has become very successful. And now because of the pandemic, you told me you’ve partnered with the State of Michigan to launch an Inpact at Home program for kids. What’s the basic premise of the original program and how did that all get started?

Hasson: This actually started a few years ago, as you mentioned, with two architects who worked in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. And they were really interested in helping schools, redesigning schools to promote physical activity in the classroom. It was a very innovative time and idea because this was during 2012, 2013, when Michelle Obama was still the first lady and she had her Let’s Move campaign. And she really had a lot of individuals thinking about how can we re-engineer physical activity back into our children’s lives to help put them on a healthier weight trajectory and help them meet the physical activity recommendations. And so, the architects contacted me. As an exercise physiologist, I have training and background on not only how to get children moving, but to help them to improve their health through movement. And we just started working together to figure out how can we promote physical activity in the classroom. And the first question we need to ask ourselves is how much physical activity can we get in the classroom? What’s the smallest amount? Because we know that teachers are really strapped for time. They don’t have 30 minute blocks to engage in physical activity. Can we actually infuse small bursts of activity throughout the day in the classroom, and will that produce any health benefits? And so when we first started, when I first met you, we were just testing out things in the classroom, testing these small activity breaks. And we noted that two minutes of activity was sufficient to elicit a whole bunch of responses. If you just give these small doses of activity throughout the day, it accumulates into a health benefit. And so that is what we were working on in the actual laboratory. The architects were in their studio and they were really focusing on how much space, how much room does a student need to be able to move safely in a classroom? And how can we redesign the furniture in the classroom to promote movement in that space? And so we partnered with organizations within a University of Michigan. So the School Education, School of Public Health, Michigan Medicine—researchers from all of those different areas to really develop a program that promotes “interrupting prolonged sitting with activity” in that school environment. And that’s where we came up with the acronym Inpact. And so we first tested it in three different schools throughout the state of Michigan, working with teachers, working with principals—what works, doesn’t work. And we figured out that five, four minute activity breaks is a dose that teachers can actually implement, which is two thirds of the recommendations that schools should provide for their students. So if you partner physical activity in the classroom with physical education, with recess, with safe routes to school programs, with playgrounds that promote safe activity, we can actually achieve the 60 minutes of physical activity that they are supposed to accumulate every single day.

Wood: You know, like when we grew up, there was gym class and you had recess and stuff. What changed?

Hasson: Yeah, what changed? A lot has changed. So since the time we were in schools, if you remember, we had P.E. every day. We had many opportunities to be physically active throughout the day. But because of budget cuts, because of changes in priorities in schools, a lot of these programs, particularly in low resource environments, so schools that had cuts to their funding or that may be underperforming and they are really focusing on improving their test scores. The shift is really focused to the reading, the writing, the math, the science. And less attention is paid to the arts and the physical education. We needed to think of alternative routes to promote physical activity in those environments. We know for sure that lower resource schools are less likely to have certified P.E. instructors. They are less likely to have structured recess opportunities. They’re less likely to have sports programing, and they’re also less likely to have safe routes to school programs from their neighborhoods. So with those different opportunities not as accessible in low risk communities, we wanted to make sure that we were innovating and finding ways in which we could provide equitable physical activity, opportunities to all children, irrespective of their income status or the schools that they attend, so that we can be promoting health in that environment. So really, our project Inpact at School really emerged out of a need to create more equitable opportunities for all children to be able to engage in health enhancing physical activity in the school environment.

Wood: You told me that you were contacted by the state of Michigan and Inpact at School has now become an Inpact at Home program. How did that all come about and how’s that going?

Hasson: We’ve had a lot of success with Inpact at School program, and we are currently working in Saginaw Intermediate School districts with their wellness coordinators to actually scale up Inpact and implement it all throughout the entire intermediate school district. But right when we started working on that project, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. What did that mean? That meant that all of the opportunities that children have to engage in physical activity in that school environment were eliminated or severely reduced. So classrooms were now in a virtual format. Children were no longer walking to and from school. So many of the opportunities that kids had to even exercise in their environment, their home environments, and their neighborhoods were limited. I had an opportunity to speak with the vice president of the State Board of Education, Dr. Pamela Pugh, who reached out to me and said: “Hey, you do a lot of work in the schools. You have been promoting physical activity in that environment for a long time. Can you help us to continue to provide opportunities for children to be active while they are sheltering in place?”. And so we needed to think again about innovative ways to provide physical activity opportunities to the 1.5 million children in our state. We quickly, rapidly converted Inpact at School to an Inpact at Home program. We worked with physical education teachers from across the state to provide or develop exercise videos. We created a website to host the program. We invited different program partners such as the Detroit Pistons, the Detroit Lions, the American Heart Association, Playworks, the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, the Department of Education, Michigan School Health Coordinators Association, and the Society of Health and Physical Education Educators. They all came together to really create a program that enables children to exercise safely within their home environment. And that’s where we developed the “interrupting prolonged sitting with activity at home program”.

Wood: Wow, launching a program like that with less than a year to get it all going seems amazing. Do you look back and are just amazed at how that came together?

Hasson: Well, we have been talking about how do we promote physical activity in many different ways, in innovative ways for a long time. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic gave us an opportunity to innovate even more. And because there is such a need and there needed to be solutions that were developed quickly, it was a great opportunity for all of us to come together, band together, put our minds together and figure out how do we help to get kids moving. And because I’m an exerciser myself, use some of my own strategies in what we were doing at home. What I was doing at home was using exercise videos to stay active because I was training for the Detroit Half Marathon—Free Press Half Marathon. And so I knew that I had to innovate my own exercise practices. And so we use that to innovate and provide opportunities for children. I think one of the amazing things is how we were able to really come together and think about all children. So how do we help children who don’t have regular Internet access? How do we help children who may have physical limitations that prevent them from doing all different types of activities? So how do we adapt the activities to each individual’s ability level? How do we reach the kids that may not have or may not be regularly active? And so how do we help them to innovate and have fun with the activity breaks and then thinking about how do we promote mental health and mental wellness during this time? We know that stress levels went up quite a bit. Anxiety levels went up quite a bit. Students who are missing hanging out with their friends, exercising with their friends. And so we really needed to think quickly and fast. And so, yes, we were surprised by the uptake, but we knew that the uptake would be fairly quick because the need was so high.

Wood: And just in your research and your program building, you also teach. Have you been teaching through the pandemic and I assume teaching virtually, how’s that going?

Hasson: So, yes, I have been teaching in a virtual format. And, you know, while I love engaging with my students in person in a classroom, I’ve also had an opportunity to engage with them for two semesters now in a virtual platform. And I actually love it. I love having the opportunity to work with the students in this new format. It’s giving me new ways to think about how to present material, how to engage with students. It allows them to go into little breakout rooms and they’re able to have conversations in the absence of the teacher so that they can really be a little more transparent and vulnerable with each other. So because some of the classes that I teach, they really focus on social factors and how they shape physical activity behavior. So we talk about things like racial discrimination, we talk about socioeconomic status, we talk about access to physical activity, resources, and the students actually get an opportunity in this virtual platform to work independently in their groups to come up with innovative solutions of how we can help to change the direction in which we are going in terms of physical inactivity as a function of the Covid pandemic. We also—in my class that I teach on research methods, help students to really think about, “What is the type of research questions that they want to be asking for the rest of their career?”. Thinking about how will they promote healthy lifestyles through physical activity and how do I help them to fine tune their research questions that they want to address. I’ve had a great time and I’ve had excellent students that have been very engaged and excellent classroom environment. Even though we have to work in this virtual platform.

Wood: Hah that’s neat. I hear different things from different professors on how it goes. I guess it varies by subject—to what you’re teaching and how you’re presenting and-

Hasson: Teaching in the pandemic, when I first started, I said to myself, obstacles are opportunities for innovation. And so instead of looking at all the things that I was using as a function of not teaching in person, I really wanted to think in a more constructive manner of how—”What are the things that I might be gaining? What are things that I can actually tweak to actually make this an enjoyable experience for our students?”. And I think that they have enjoyed the classes this semester and might have a great attitude about how they can continue to use virtual platforms for learning experiences.

Wood: Wow, that’s cool. You mentioned something kind of in passing or alluded to it about Master’s students having a research question that will, you know, that they’ll pursue the rest of their academic career. Was there something when you were in either grad school or at the end of your undergrad? Was there a question was something that sparked your interest to get you started in this whole field in general?

Hasson: Absolutely. It was a personally motivated question. And that question came my junior year of my undergraduate education in a professor’s class. I was an exercise science major and I was also a student athlete. So I was a two sport athlete. I played volleyball and I ran track University of Massachusetts. And I was sitting in class one day the professor put a slide up that showed disparities in blood pressure or hypertension, and it showed African-Americans had high blood pressure rates that were two, three, four times higher than other races and ethnicities. And as an African-American female who exercised, I was interested in understanding, am I going to get hypertension? I exercise. I exercise a lot. Is this something that I’m just destined to have or is there something I can do about it? Is there some sort of solution to the problem? Will my exercise, help to overcome potentially my genes? And so I have been studying that question and trying to understand why do certain groups have higher rates of disease? Why do some groups have a higher mortality rate than others? And is this a function of genes, behavior, or environment? And over time, we have realized that the environment plays a much stronger role, and it actually influences our behaviors and can influence our genetic expression through epigenetic changes. How can we shape environments that then have an influence on behaviors that can then create a healthy biology or a healthy internal environment? And that is basically the question that I have been trying to answer for the past twenty years since my undergraduate education onto my graduate, postdoctoral, and now as an associate professor at the University of Michigan, that is the question that has been driving my research agenda for the last 20 years.

Wood: Wow. Do you think the fact that there are more African-Americans or minorities in general that have the opportunity to go to college and want to find solutions to things that they can relate to directly, do you think that’s having an impact on, you know, finding some of the solutions in minority communities?

Hasson: I think that increasing the diversity of the student body has definitely been helpful and influential in asking different questions and answering different questions. I think that when we think—when we think about diversity, equity and inclusion, those principles help everyone because they provide different perspectives on the same problem. And they also help to look at new problems and address them in a new light. So I think yes, the opportunity to allow for all students from different backgrounds, different experiences to obtain a college education and to look at these problems that we have been dealing with for a very long time. It is helping all students to be able to have a broader perspective on what are some of the solutions, what are some of the opportunities to address health disparities across the nation.

Wood: You told me your dad played college football at Texas Southern University, which is a historically black university. And at the time he went to college, there were certain colleges he couldn’t go to because he was black. Does he ever talk about those times or did it have a big impact on him or did he go where he could go and made the most of it?

Hasson: Education has always been a high priority in our family, on both my mother’s side and on my father’s side. And yes, while he was not able to go to a predominantly white school at the time, he did take every advantage to get the quality education at a quality school, Texas Southern University. He does talk about it sometimes. And, you know, I think everyone who grew up in a segregated environment struggles with that and struggles with potential opportunities that were lost. But he loves the fact and he is very proud of the fact that he is a graduate of a historically black college and university. So while it is tragic that some opportunities were not available to him at that time, he cherishes every opportunity that he had gained a quality education at an HBCU.

Wood: And how did he do on the football field? Do you know?

Hasson: Oh, he was—you know, my dad, we are we are athletic family. So he excelled.

Wood: I’m sure.

Hasson: And it was his influence that got me into sports. So yeah, we have always used sports as a way to advance our educational opportunities. And so my father’s definitely one of the key role models in my life that I model my life after, as I think about how sports has influenced my educational opportunities and even just my perspectives on life.

Wood: So where did you grow up? What was what was life like for you? And obviously if you played college sports, you must’ve been quite a standout athlete in high school. Did you—what other sports did you play and what was life like and where did you grow up?

Hasson: So I grew up in Riverside, California. My great grandparents migrated from Texas to California back in the 1920s and they had ten children. And so all of my cousins, aunts, uncles, extended family all live in Riverside, California, including my parents and grandparents. So I had a wonderful time growing up in Riverside because we were a big family. And social cohesion within our family has always been a blessing that I’ve been able to experience. Again, not only my father was a college athlete, but all of his brothers played football, and many of my relatives also played sports as well. And so I grew up wanting to play sports. And so I tried out for the volleyball team in the ninth grade and played all four years in high school, played club volleyball. So it’s off-season volleyball, and then had an opportunity to come to the University of Massachusetts as a full scholarship athlete to play college volleyball. My twin sister was also involved in athletics and she is a brown black belt in karate. So I know not to mess with my twin sister.

Wood: That’s funny. It seems like you had some opportunities to go to different colleges to play volleyball. Why did you pick you UMass?

Hasson: So UMass is an incredible school, but at the time you’re 18 years old. So my parents picked UMass, because it is a great educational opportunity. There was a exercise science program there and they just thought it would be a great educational experience for me as an eighteen year old rebellious eighteen year old. I picked the University of Massachusetts, because I wanted to spread my wings and fly and I wanted to see a different part of the United States. So, of course, I picked the school that was as far from California as possible. And it’s funny now that I think about it. But, you know, at that age, I was really interested in seeing new things, experiencing new things. And so I went to school where I could spread my wings and fly. And I stayed at the University of Massachusetts for 11 years, completing my undergraduate master’s and Ph.D. education at the university. And then I came back home. I realized how wonderful California was and I missed my family dearly. And I came back to California to do two post-doctoral training opportunities, one at the University of Southern California and the second one up north at University of California in San Francisco. And then I took advantage of the opportunity to work at the great and fantastic University of Michigan. And here I am eight years later.

Wood: So do you have any hobbies? What do you do to wind down when you’re not teaching or doing research?

Hasson: Probably my three main hobbies are—I love to run. So with my church, I actually run the Detroit Free Press half marathon. We run for social causes. And so I run to bring awareness and raise money for the human trafficking problem we have here in the state of Michigan. I also am an avid reader. So during the Covid pandemic, I have been in a book club with my mother and aunts. And we had fun just reading and doing Zoom Book Club. But even before that, my colleagues here in the School of Kinesiology and across the university we have a B3! Book club. We read, books, fictional books, nonfiction. It’s just a fun time. They come together and just enjoy a good book. I also enjoy quilting, which people are like: “You quilt, what?”. Yes, my mother is an avid quilter and she has passed on that hobby to me. And I also do that through my church. And so I’m pretty active in my church, which is given me another community to really help people and have an opportunity to just do what I was called to do. So I like to use both my work and my hobbies and personal life to promote child health.

Wood: That’s awesome. Now that you’re basically at the midpoint of your career, what’s next?

Hasson: I was just talking to my mother and I told her that I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m no longer interested in just getting a better understanding of the problem. With the resources that we have here at the University of Michigan. I am much more interested in trying to find solutions to these problems. And that’s what I try to train my students on, both in the classroom and in my laboratory. How can we get a good understanding of the problem but not stop there? What’s the next step? And how can we actually find feasible solutions? Now these solutions are going to make us a bit uncomfortable. It’s not ok to just have this incremental progress where it costs us nothing because there are people hurting and we need to get uncomfortable so that we can allow for many more people to have an opportunity to live healthy and successful lives. We don’t have to wait for this great utopian society. We can take steps towards living in a more equitable community right now. And those steps can occur if we put our minds to it. And if we work together as a team and if we choose to address the root problems of some of these disparities that we are witnessing in our pediatric populations.

Wood: I think it’s awesome there’s people like you out there doing that, that’s so cool.

Hasson: Let’s go. Let’s go!

Wood: Don’t be. Don’t be, what’s your dad say?

Hasson: Don’t get ready, be ready!

Wood: Well, thank you for all your hard work that you do to help kids, and thanks for sharing your story today. I appreciate it.

Hasson: Absolutely. Thank you for having me Mike. It’s good to talk to you.

Wood: And thank you all for listening. I’d also like to thank the whole team here at Michigan News where we bring University of Michigan stories to the world. I’m Mike Wood, be well, be safe and I’ll see you beyond the headlines.