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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
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

John Sanderson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a recently retired elementary school principal, and I believe your principal is probably like many of the younger principals I have come to know over the past few years. They have become principals at a time when the only acceptable measure of "success" in most school districts is how well the school performs on standardized testing. Coming into these administrative positions with clear directives and/or ultimatums from the powers that be to "get those test scores up," these inexperienced and perhaps job-scared individuals buy in to whatever the test performance improvement strategy du jour may be. Providing adequate "instructional time" to implement these new strategies generally entails a trade off whereby time for something else in the curriculum must be reduced or eliminated. Your principal is talking about limiting physical activity, but others have eliminated music or art or language programs - all areas considered by many to be less "essential" than focused instruction in reading or math skills, even though studies abound proving just the opposite is true for all of these elements of a well-rounded curriculum. In most cases these principals are good people who really care about children, but they lose whatever positive perspective they may have once had because of the intense testing pressure and scrutiny they must endure. So, I'm not excusing your principal for considering such counterproductive measures, because she should have enough common sense to see the potential for causing some real damage to your students in many ways. But I am suggesting that her actions are not that much different from others who are also experiencing high levels of test performance anxiety.

Heather Kennedy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For Dr. Carole B Reiss: I will be teaching Health/Wellness to 3rd, 4th graders beginning this Fall 09 here in Maine. I will be incorporating stress release & mindtuning exercises in every class (we meet once/week for 45 minutes). I would like to obtain your research findings. Thank you! maineseas@gwi.net

venhi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

heh, I just blogged about this too. This is a critical issue that needs more exposure. Once again Edutopia is "ahead of the game" in shedding light on the latest research in children and learning. I refer to a 2005 study from The Salk Institute in my b-post where mice that have unlimited access to a running wheel actually grow more brain cells AND complete a Morris water maze 45% faster.

Unfortunately the mainstream media doesn't help in shedding the "dumb jock" stereotype as more scholar-athletes push the envelope of becoming a better balanced human being. There are many that stand out: in particular American hero Pat Tillman. As an Arizona Cardinal he eventually became a member of the elite Army Rangers. A finance major at Arizona State, he obtained a 3.84 GPA.

I hope more edu-journals follow Edutopia's lead, particularly in this area.

Angie DeMarco's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a former front-line mental health worker I have been sharing "movements" with students and educators. Due to the success with movement with adults who struggled with anxiety and addiction, I was pleased to see that the balance created for them, also worked for students that had learning blocks due to class-room stress, and brain differences.
Fast, safe, simple, effective and FREE - a win-win for both students and teachers. Students relax, engage, learn. Educators are able to meet their curriculum goals. A Great-Brainer!!

Will's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My former district just cut all elementary PE teachers. Classroom teachers will have the responsibility of teaching PE. Some will do just fine and implement organized lessons and activities. But I suspect the majority of them will simply make it another recess time. Too bad.

Susan Soares's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would love to read more about your research. I did a limited class w/yoga for my 5th graders several years ago, and would like to make it more a part of my classes in the future.

Mark Grandell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The statement made by the Principal needs to be substantiated by data(evidence). Perhaps BMI calculations along the CDC's Prevalence of Risk information may be a good place to start for the purpose of finding out what % of the school's population may be "at-risk" and/or are considered to be obese.

I think it may be interesting to find out from the Principal how many students it takes for an issue to become "a problem" !

Noah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your brain is a thinking organ that learns and grows by interacting with the world through perception and action. Mental stimulation improves brain function and actually protects against cognitive decline, as does physical exercise.

The human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it.

leslie's picture

How sad PE was erased as a class from your school system. But don't let that discourage you getting the kiddos active at home. (Not preaching, I home school.) It is difficult for us at times to get motivated but I do believe it is important for both the body and the mind. Found a pod cast earlier that I wanted to add to the mix (http://unifiedlifestyle.podomatic.com/) that emphasizes the importance. I am researching now the helpful role exercise plays in adhd students as well.

I hope that the teachers are able to provide enough activity for the children. Although i know how busy they are. Will be praying for them.

Kallis Sharad's picture
Kallis Sharad
Seventh grade science teacher from Newark

Workout and healthy food are very important to improve health and build strong muscles. Go for running, walking, push ups, chair squats, bench press and push ups to make strong muscles and reduce joints pains. Eat fresh fruits, vegetables, salads, drink fruit juice and plenty of water that are really good for health and prevent from many disease.It improve mood, make strong bones and muscles, boost energy, improve heart functions and mental health.

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