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Good News for Teachers: Exercise Builds Brain Power, Too

Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

Authors of Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Professional Developers, & Co-Developers of Graduate Programs Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science
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As many educators can attest at the end of a busy school day, teaching can be physically demanding. The good news is that all your standing, walking, stretching, and lifting, day in and day out, is as good for your brain as it is for your body.

  • Regular physical activity is associated with increased production of the neurochemical BDNF, which supports the production of new neurons and synapses in your brain.
  • Exercise increases mass in areas of the brain involved in executive function, memory, and spatial processing.
  • The cardiovascular health effects of exercise extend to increasing the growth of blood vessels that improve oxygen flow to the brain.
  • Regular workouts help to relieve stress, alleviate symptoms of depression, and enhance a positive outlook.

Getting Stronger

Adding exercise to your daily routine, such as a brisk walk, run, bike ride, or workout at the gym, can enhance these benefits and help build stamina for energetic teaching. Physical activity guidelines for adults from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, and at least twice-weekly muscle-strengthening activities that work out all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).

Regular aerobic exercise, which gets you breathing harder and your heart beating faster, improves cardiovascular health. Even ten-minute bursts of moderate to rigorous exercise can have a positive impact on your body and brain health. Here's a good gauge of whether your workout is in the moderate or rigorous range of activity: When you're walking, doing water aerobics, or riding a bike, if you can talk but not sing, you're at a moderate level. During a rigorous workout, you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing to catch your breath.

Aerobic exercise gets a lot of attention, but muscle-strengthening exercises are crucial for body and brain health as well. Medical research shows that strength training benefits people of all ages, adds vitality, and can counteract some effects of aging. A pound of muscle burns calories more efficiently than a pound of fat, so adding muscle can increase your metabolic rate, enhance cardiovascular health, increase levels of "good cholesterol" (HDL), and trigger muscles to use more insulin, which reduces the risk of developing diabetes.

In addition, a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that strength training improves the cognitive functioning and memory of older adults. Yoga, weight lifting, working with resistance bands or equipment, exercises like push ups that use your body weight for resistance, and chores that involve heavy lifting, digging, or shoveling are effective muscle-strengthening activities. As this list demonstrates, you don't need to join a gym to build muscle, but it may be helpful to consult a trainer or a good book or online resource on strength training to develop an effective regimen that will work for you.

More Exercise, Better Rest

Another dividend of regular physical activity is a better night's sleep. The stress of teaching can make it difficult to turn off your brain so that you can sleep well and wake up refreshed and ready for a new day. In a study shared by the National Sleep Foundation, participants who worked out at least 150 minutes weekly reported 65 percent better sleep quality than those who did not exercise regularly.

Getting adequate sleep (at least seven hours on average for adults) can help improve the ability to focus your attention on cognitively demanding tasks and reduce the tendency to feel sleepy or rundown during the day. Regular exercise results in more restful nights, which in turn can boost the energy that you need to take on the physical and cognitive demands of your profession.

Make It Fun

It's easier to commit to a regular activity if you enjoy it. If you develop an exercise regimen that fits your individual preferences and that you look forward to, you will be much more likely to make it a long-term routine. You might enjoy a solitary walk in the woods or prefer a Zumba class with friends. Parents and grandparents can combine family time with exercise by engaging in active play with their children and grandchildren.

A final suggestion is looking for ways to add fitness breaks throughout your busy days. Incorporate a few moments to stretch and move about the classroom with your students during transitions between lessons. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Parking farther away from your destination adds a few extra steps when you run errands. These little habits provide refreshing reminders about the body and brain benefits of "getting physical."

For further reading:

  • Conyers, M., & Wilson, D. (2015). Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
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Brain-Friendly Strategies for Battling Burnout
Teachers deserve access to the science and strategies for supporting well-being and battling burnout through the synergy of healthy nutrition, regular exercise, and positive thinking.

Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

Authors of Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Professional Developers, & Co-Developers of Graduate Programs Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science
In This Series
Teachers deserve access to the science and strategies for supporting well-being and battling burnout through the synergy of healthy nutrition, regular exercise, and positive thinking.

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Jaszy Lyles's picture

I found this article very intriguing. I honestly feel like in society today children are not as active as they once were. In my classroom I utilize a variety of breaks. I think this helps my students to keep focus. I work with younger students in my classroom. Therefore, they get easily distracted. Often times they become antsy. I think these breaks help them to get rid of the extra energy. This also helps me to reign in their attention. Also, I agree that students respond better to activities that are fun. When a child is having fun they are more engaged. This increased engagement leads to students grasping more content. Learning through play is a successful method.

While reading this blog, I knew that exercise could be beneficial. I did not know the exact ways that it could help students. I would like to incorporate exercise into my daily routines. This article has provided multiple valid points that I agree with. I know that when someone is well rested they are more likely to reach their full potential. I also know that exercise can improve sleep patterns. I think this article is valuable and many teachers should read it. Overall, I believe that students can benefit from having a healthy lifestyle. I hope that those that read this article will open their eyes to how helpful breaks can be to their students.

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Jym Shoe's picture

This article is really inspiring. Burnout is a real issue facing teachers at every stage of their careers. It is easy to give in and let the negativity of the day creep in and get the best of you at times. It is sad to think that we forget that we are people who have basic needs beyond grading papers and doing lesson plans. In my free time I try to get some kind of physical activity, and the benefits are just as they advertise. I do not need to run a marathon, but even the slightest workout really helps me both decompress and focus. I cannot stress how helpful this advice is for a teacher.

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Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Ms. Liles,

Thank you for amplifying the importance of movement during the school day! If you are interested in further reading our May 2015 article in Kappan can be found at the following link...http://www.kappancommoncore.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/38pdk_96_8.pdf
This Kappan article includes practical strategies as well as key research about why movement is important for learning.

All the best to you!

Donna

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Mr. Shoe,

We could not agree more:)

Donna

TODD SENTELL's picture
TODD SENTELL
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Brood and ruin your mood. I finally got smart and learned that too-many cigars and brooding for way too long every evening at home, was not the way to take the edge off what a teacher experiences. It was not the way to refresh. It's exercise--open-mouth breathing, sweat-spewing, body-changing exercise. That's what ultimately does it.

I started training for marathons and ran in a bunch of marathons and half-marathons and in those hard-core, military style obstacle course races ... one of them with my fellow teacher, Mr. Warbird, leading the charge to not be burned alive, electrocuted, or to drown in creeks, lakes, or huge pools of freezing mud or ice water.

I boxed at the local Police Athletic league and got kicked around, but while I changed my body and teacher's mind for the better. Some of my students caught on and asked why in the heck would I subject myself to all that. I never told them the real truth. But I did let them punch me in my stomach as hard as they wanted and anytime they wanted. You can know your subject and teach it like an expert, but if you want to impress young scholars, let them punch you in your new rock-hard gut and enjoy the satisfaction of being their teacher-hero in the most unconventional way. This used to drive my principal, Lurlene, crazy and she told me to stop but I never did.

Old Burrell across the hall thought it was brilliant. At his old school, six or seven hundred years ago, he said he used to kick kids out of class by dragging them into the hall while they were still in their desks. That was back in the good ol' days, he said, and parents thanked him for it.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Todd,

I enjoyed reading of your transformation from a brooding cigar smoker to amazing athletic adventure hero for your students!!!! We're going to check out your memoir now:)

Donna

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TODD SENTELL's picture
TODD SENTELL
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Many thanks, Donna! I know you'll enjoy it. I sure did enjoy living it ... and still do.

Teach On!

Todd

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