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Public Health Community Mourns Dr. Toni Yancey


People across the childhood obesity movement are remembering the extraordinary life of Dr. Antronette Yancey, who passed away on April 23 after a long battle with lung cancer. Yancey, who went by the name Toni, was 55.

Called a “true renaissance woman” by colleagues at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Yancey dedicated her career to social justice and eliminating health disparities. She also founded the award-winning program Instant Recess, which aims to help Americans incorporate 10 minute bouts of physical activity into their daily routine.

“I feel so very lucky to have had the very great privilege of knowing Toni for an all too brief moment in time,” said Infusion Wellness founder Lisa Morrison, who identified Yancey as her role model in a recent interview with the Inside Track. “Her energy and resilience throughout a lifetime of overcoming challenges and obstacles will always be an inspiration to me. I know I will continue to celebrate her life for the rest of mine.”

Yancey’s funeral service is scheduled for Friday at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills in Southern California.

That morning before the service, Morrison plans to lead an Instant Recess session at the Best of Out-of-School Time Conference in tribute.

In addition, several organizations are planning a special Instant Recess break on May 7 to honor Yancey’s legacy. Organizations will take part in a 10-minute Instant Recess at 4 p.m. EST, with participants following the moves presented in this video featuring Yancey and members of the Los Angeles Sparks. Organizers at the Prevention Institute are also encouraging people to take photos or a quick video of their Instant Recess break and share it on social media using the hashtag #InstantRecess.

“Toni was just getting started. It's up to us to continue the MOVEment,” organizers write.

Born in Kansas City, Kan., Yancey studied biochemistry and molecular biology at Northwestern University, where she also starred on the women’s basketball team. Yancey attended medical school at Duke University before heading to UCLA, where she completed her residency and earned a master’s in public health.

Yancey’s medical career took her across the public health spectrum, including stints as director of public health for Richmond, Va., and director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion for Los Angeles County, according to the Los Angeles Times. She co-founded the Fielding School’s UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity, where she worked on social justice issues, and also served as commissioner of the Los Angeles County First 5 Commission.

But she perhaps was best known for Instant Recess, which Yancey identified as her biggest accomplishment in helping to reduce childhood obesity in an interview with the Inside Track. Yancey said she was inspired to enter the field of public health after working with children in foster care, which led her to efforts to help kids lead healthier lives. “I think youth development and obesity prevention are natural allies in addressing disparities and inequities,” Yancey said.

Yancey’s colleagues described her as a pioneer, noting she was among the first people to actively promote efforts to improve physical environments, a strategy now widely embraced by the public health community. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 honored Yancey with the Pioneering Innovation Award for her efforts, and she was named to the board of directors for the Partnership for a Healthier America.

“Her work transformed lives across the country,” UCLA Fielding Dean Jody Heyman and Professor Roshan Bastani said in a statement. “We are deeply saddened by the enormous loss to our field in the passing of this remarkable woman. We grieve with Toni’s family, friends, colleagues at the school and across the country, and the entire field of public health.”

In a joint statement, PHA chairman Dr. James Gavin and President and CEO Lawrence Soler said that Yancey’s death “will be felt at PHA and throughout the country.”

“Her work improved the health of children and families across the nation and it will always serve as an inspiration,” they added. “Her passionate exhortations to us to stay active and keep moving will continue to guide our behavior… we will honor her the best way we know how: to work harder than ever to ensure that every child can experience the joy and health that results from being physically active.”

Along with her work in public health, Yancey also was an accomplished poet, releasing a book of poetry in 1997 and a spoken word CD in 2001.

Do you have a special memory about Toni Yancey? Please use the comments below to share your thoughts. will include them a special note we will send to the team at Instant Recess. You can also email us via [email protected].

Zach Brooks contributed to this report.