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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Fit Body Means a Fit Mind

Along with physical strength, a little exercise helps kids build brainpower.
By Vanessa Richardson
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Credit: Hugh D'Andrade

Forget the term "dumb jocks." According to the latest research, that's an oxymoron. New findings from biology and education research show that regular exercise benefits the brain in numerous ways.

Not only can regular workouts in the gym or on the playground improve attention span, memory, and learning, they can also reduce stress and the effects of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and even delay cognitive decline in old age. In short, staying in shape can make you smarter.

"Memory retention and learning functions are all about brain cells actually changing, growing, and working better together," says John J. Ratey, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. "Exercise creates the best environment for that process to occur."

Although researchers aren't exactly certain how exercise leads to better cognitive function, they are learning how it physically benefits the brain. For starters, aerobic exercise pumps more blood throughout the body, including to the brain. More blood means more oxygen and, therefore, better-nourished brain tissue.

Exercise also spurs the brain to produce more of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which Ratey calls "Miracle-Gro for the brain." This powerful protein encourages brain cells to grow, interconnect, and communicate in new ways. Studies also suggest exercise plays a big part in the production of new brain cells, particularly in the dentate gyrus, a part of the brain heavily involved in learning and memory skills.

It wasn't until recently that researchers turned their interest to children -- in whom exercise may have more impact. The brain's frontal lobe, thought to play a role in cognitive control, keeps growing throughout the school years, says Charles Hillman, associate professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois. "Therefore, exercise could help ramp up the development of a child's brain," he says.

In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Hillman put 259 Illinois third graders and fifth graders through standard physical education routines such as push-­ups and a timed run, and he measured their body mass. Then he checked their physical results against their math and reading scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

"There was a relationship to academic performance," says Hillman. "The more physical tests they passed, th­e better they scored on the achievement test." The ef­fects appeared regard­less of gender and socioeconomic differences, so it seems that regardless of his or her race or family income, the fitness of a child's body and mind are tightly linked.

The bigger the dose of exercise, the more it can pay off in academic achievement. In a study published the same year in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, researchers found that children ages 7-11 who exercised for 40 minutes daily after school had greater academic improvement than same-aged kids who worked out for just 20 minutes.

Phillip Tomporowski, professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia, and one of the team members who conducted the study, says much of the research today seems to negate the old notion that recess sends kids back to class more hyper and rowdy. "It appears to be the other way around," he says. "They go back to class less boisterous, more attentive, and better behaved compared with kids who have been sitting in chairs for hours on end."

Hillman also tested that notion in a study published this year in Neuroscience and found that kids had more accurate responses on standardized tests when they were tested after moderate exercise, as opposed to being tested after 20 minutes of sitting still. His results lend support to the idea that just a single aerobic workout before class helps boost kids' learning skills and attention spans.

Exercise in School

Naperville Central High School, in Naperville, Illinois, has put that idea into practice for nearly four years. It started when officials created learning-readiness PE in 2005, an early-morning class for 12 students who needed extra help with literacy skills.

For 30 minutes, they rotated through aerobic activities, wearing heart monitors to ensure that their heart rate was in the target zone of 160-190 beats per minute. Then they joined other students, who had not exercised, in a special literacy class.

According to Paul Zientarski, the school's instructional coordinator for physical education and health, students who took PE prior to class showed one and a quarter year's growth on the standardized reading test after just one semester, while the exercise-free students gained just nine-tenths of a year.

He then used the same approach for math-troubled students, scheduling some in PE before an introductory algebra class. The results were even more dramatic; exercising students increased their math test scores by 20.4 percent, while the rest gained 3.9 percent. "It doesn't matter if they work out in the morning or afternoon, just that they're in the class right after PE," says Zientarski. "It calms them down, it makes them more willing to learn, and they feel good about themselves."

So, which types of exercise are best for brainpower? Hillman and other researchers tout aerobic and cardiovascular activities, such as running, swimming, and playground games. "In my studies, only cardiovascular exercise was related to higher academic performance," he says.

Naperville also focuses on cardiovascular exercise. However, in addition to running sprints and jumping rope, students do juggling, gymnastics, and tumbling, which require concentration and provide positive stress to the brain, which helps learning.

PE on the Chopping Block

Zientarski's program is an admired model for gym classes nationwide, and it's all the more notable at a time when schools are cutting back on PE and reducing recess hours. In fact, Illinois is the only state that requires daily PE for all grades.

"Others are working toward it, but it's a huge challenge with budget restraints and No Child Left Behind," says Shanna Goodman, communications manager for PE4life, a nonprofit organization in Kansas City, Missouri. Her organization has trained some 250 schools nationwide to create productive PE classes and recess activities.

One inner-city school in Kansas City, after implementing PE4life, boosted PE from one day to five days a week. In a year, cardio fitness scores shot up 200 percent, and the school saw a 59 percent decrease in disciplinary incidents. In rural areas, PE4life has helped schools such as Titusville Middle School, in Pennsylvania, incorporate activities including snow­shoeing, cross-country skiing, and skateboarding into PE.

Of course, teachers can reap rewards from exercise just as their students do. To manage body weight and prevent unhealthy weight gain, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise most days.

Researchers believe that the more regular your exercise routine, the more long-term benefits your brain will get. So it's important to keep working out regularly. Try your own 20-minute romp around the playground or the gymnasium. A regular workout will make both you and your students feel like "smart jocks" for the rest of the school day.

Vanessa Richardson is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Comments (29)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Alison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is so interesting to me as a PE teacher to know that what we are doing is validated.
I also find it amazing that many still think that PE is still a luxury in this world- a world where we have chronic health problems with children and teens. We think the answer to the literacy problems is to make them study harder and longer- we forget that kids need to get active to actually learn.
After all- you can be the most 'academic' student in the world... but if you live an unhealthy life and your health suffers as an adult... then all those academics are not the thing that will help you.
Don't we all go back to the things that make us feel good when things get tough in our lives or when we need to rejuvenate ourselves- the physical and the artistic. Aren't these the things in life which give us a release valve to de-stress.
When will the policy makers and academics actually realize that if you want to make life better for kids then let them do things that are good for their health and things they enjoy.
Like Physical activity! There are a lot of good teachers and good programs that are being run out there... let us continue to help children see the benefit of balance in their lives!

Robert Ballentine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the new research findings that support what we have known for thousands of years. The first research, though, was done in the West by the ancient Greeks, and published in Plato's Republic, in 360 B.C. Maybe we could do a little more research before we claim to have discovered what can be known all along?

Ash's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wonderfully said. I totally agree! I think this is a fantastic way to put it. props to you!!

Rosemary S. Marcus, Occupational Therapist's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Occupational and Physical Therapists who work in educational environments have been supporting increased physical activity to increase learning readiness, ability to focus, learning through multisensory modalities,etc. for many years. Paul and Gail Dennison's work in Education Kinesioloy have developed the "Brain Gym" program and Carla Hannaford has written books (such as "Smart Moves) about this topic. "Brain Gym(r) International is the nonprofit organization committed to the principle that intentional movement is the door to optimal living and learning. Its mission is to support self-awareness and ease of living and learning through safe, simple, and effective movement. The organization was founded in 1987 under the name of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation and in 2000 began doing business as Brain Gym(r) International."

Glenn Purpura's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a former Physical Education Teacher, now an administrator at a Catholic school, it is due time that the information on the latest and earlier research is getting out. Physical Education is not a luxury, it is a necessary part of the day each and every child needs. I will be implementing an everyday physical education class at my school for next year, unheard of in the parochial setting. My teachers are aware of the lastest research, and the schedule is designed to have math and or science following physical education. The research is clear, and it is time to get the news out to the state leaders to get physical eduation back in school every day for everyone. I am currently leading a K-8 Catholic school in the suburbs of Chicago, and I am available for workshops in Brain Based Learning, where the information and research are presented and acted upon by the workshop participants. I will be doing my part to get this movement in high gear. If you need help drop me a line.

Denny Lemmon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

More proof that fit and healthy children will learn better! A great article and it should be read by students, parents, teachers and administrators. If we do indeed want to see improvement in our student's academic achievement we must make sure that they are getting daily physical education.

Carole B. Reiss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just completed my research on the effects of mindful exercise on standardized test scores. My study showed that 4th and 5th grade students who took Yoga and Tai-Chi did better than the group laying volleyball and basketball on the Wechsler WIAT-ll test. This is a great breakthrough for me, as I am a Director in Physical and Health Education at South Shore YABC in NYC. With this information, i can create new programs to boost student test scores, and improve their health.
Carole B. Reiss, PhD.

Theresa Tower's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This sounds fantastic. How many students were in your study? How long did your study last? Did you have another teacher doing the same lessons in a different District?

jeff levin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

UTube and other sites are great resources for all teachers. IF the school district they work in does not block it. Or if they allowed the teachers to have a code to choose what to show in class. But I would bet that most high school teachers are restricted from using UTube and other sites like it.

You should do a survey to see what the statistics are, it would be interesting.

jeff Levin
Saugerties High School

Ruth Manna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This afternoon I was at a faculty meeting and heard my principal say that she was considering limiting PE classes (currently 45 min. twice a week) to fewer min. per class or once a week and perhaps eliminate/curtail recess to give us more "instructional time" with our elementary students.
She said that since obesity and diabetes are not problems among our students, we could easily cut back on exercise and PE. She further said there is "nothing magic" about recess.

"This is where I came in," I thought, a thought I typically have in a movie theater.

Perhaps principals and teachers thought like this principal back when I started teaching in the 1970s but today we have scientific evidence that proves exercise is necessary to fire up the human brain. If we want students to be engaged in learning we need to give them movement breaks and build kinesthetic learning into our lessons.
And what if we don't have a lot of diabetes and obesity among our student population? Does that mean we should cut back on PE until our students become obese and/or develop diabetes?
What's wrong with this principal?

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