Dr. Antronette (Toni) Yancey, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who devoted her career to improving the health of vulnerable populations and eliminating health disparities, died April 23 following a battle with lung cancer. She was 55.
Yancey, a passionate advocate of healthy living through physical fitness, was widely known for creating "Instant Recess," a unique program dedicated to "making America healthier 10 minutes at a time." Her idea of incorporating brief bouts of physical activity into people's daily routine, whether at school, work or worship, earned her numerous awards, including the 2012 Pioneering Innovation Award from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She was one of a handful of national thought leaders asked to serve on the board of directors of the Partnership for a Healthier America, the nonprofit that guided first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign.
Yancey's 2010 book, "Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time," zeroed in on the state of American fitness and health — persistently sedentary, plagued by obesity — and issued a call to action that reached across economic, racial and educational lines. Her radically new approach, which was respectful of diversity and sensitive to the cultures of those who were most at risk, made physical activity the default behavior of choice. The "Instant Recess" program continues to expand in workplaces, schools, sports stadiums, houses of worship and other places where people gather. Today, more than 37 cities have adopted policies encouraging exercise breaks during meetings that last more than an hour.
"Dr. Yancey was an extraordinary life force who made an impact on everyone she knew — from those who only met her once to those who considered her a lifelong friend," said Dr. Jody Heymann, dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. "She has left a tremendous mark on the field of public health as a leader committed to, and exceptionally effective at, translating research into successful programs and policy, as a passionate teacher and mentor, as an acclaimed scholar and as a strong and crucial voice addressing inequities in health."
Yancey co-founded the Fielding School's UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity, through which she championed the cause of social justice. She was tireless in her commitment to ensure that research findings would transform lives. She made change happen in countless ways, from advocating for policy change and cajoling employers to allow their staffs to engage in "Instant Recess" on paid time, to serving as a role model for countless minority students and pounding the pavement in the community to connect on a personal level with the people she served.
For most of her professional career, Yancey championed strategies to involve vulnerable populations in physical activity. As director of public health for the city of Richmond, Va., she created and conducted the "Rock! Richmond" campaign to get every able-bodied adult in the city engaged in more physical activity. As director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion for Los Angeles County, she inaugurated "L.A. Lift Off," a 10-minute exercise break designed to involve mostly overweight, sedentary workers in low-impact dance moves at work. The success of this endeavor evolved into "Instant Recess."
Yancey's commitment to working in the community garnered her numerous awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition; a Champions of Health Professions Diversity Award from The California Wellness Foundation; a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Black Women Physicians; an Award for Excellence from the American Public Health Association; the California State Assembly 47th District's Woman of the Year honor; a Health Education Achievement and Leadership Award from the Henry Ford Health System; a WNBA Los Angeles Sparks Lisa Leslie Inspiring Women Award; a Joint Health Promotion Award from the California Public Health Association; and a Women Who Dared Award from the California Black Women's Health Project, among others. In 2000, she was honored as one of the top 50 scholarship recipients in the 50-year history of the National Medical Fellowships.
Born Nov. 1, 1957, in Kansas City, Kan., Yancey completed her undergraduate studies in biochemistry and molecular biology at Northwestern University and earned a medical degree at Duke University. She completed her residency in preventive medicine at UCLA, where she also earned a master's of public health degree. Yancey went on to serve five years in public health practice, first as director of public health for Richmond, Va., then as Los Angeles County's director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion. She then returned to academia full time, where she continued her work in teaching and research until the end of her life.
Yancey was a true renaissance woman. In addition to being a physician and professor at UCLA, she was a poet and author, a former fashion model and, at 6'2", a Division 1 basketball player during her undergraduate years at Northwestern. She brought a self-deprecating sense of humor to her life story, telling UCLA Magazine in 2006 that the nicest compliment she ever received was that she could "talk a hungry dog off a meat wagon."
Yancey always lamented that she was never able to dunk a basketball. In the same interview with UCLA Magazine, she also expressed how happy she was at UCLA, saying that "being a professor at UCLA allows me to do most everything I love."
Yancey is survived by her partner of 11 years, Darlene Edgley, their daughter Kanitra and son-in-law Oscar, and her granddaughter Anais, all of Los Angeles, and by her brother, sister-in-law and niece, who live in Texas.
In lieu of flowers, her family requests that donations be sent to the Yancey Edgley Scholarship Fund. Checks can be mailed to Santa Monica College, Black Collegians, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, Calif. 90405.