exercise alerts the brain
Physical fitness is the key to a healthy body AND mind

Finally, EXERCISE, the last of the four foundations to cover, but certainly not the least. In fact, I consider each of the four foundations – nutrition, sleep, hydration and exercise – to be equally important for learning.  However, something had to be last in the line-up and exercise ended up being it.  (There is deep psychology at work there for me).

But exercise is SOOOOO IMPORTANT for learning.

I am not just talking push-ups, pull-ups and running a mile.  Exercise includes anything that gets your body moving, from climbing at the playground to digging a hole to China.

There is tons of research about exercise and its positive (great, incredible, beneficial) impact on learning.

  • In the classroom, not only has exercise been shown to improve grades, it has been shown to reduce behavior and discipline problems.
  • Exercise also increases activity in the frontal lobes, the part of the brain important for organization, planning and judgment.   (And how many of our kids need work in that area? And how many of us?

Learning and exercise simply cannot and should not be separated.

Yet, here comes school time.  As we aim for higher (or at least more consistent) academic achievement in our kids, we continue to sacrifice things that are considered electives or extraneous to learning.  Physical education is an elective.  Recess is considered extraneous.  Many schools do not provide daily physical education.  Most schools have cut back to one recess a day, even for young children. Some schools have cut recess out altogether.

What happens then, when kids have too little movement and exercise?

For starters, kids get fidgety.  Kids NEED to burn off that extra energy.

Movement also increases alertness.  So that fidgeting is an attempt to feel more alert.  You see those kids in class who are balancing on two legs of the chair, a mere fraction of an inch from disaster.  They are trying to stay alert (though they do not realize it).  You try it (but not if you think you might get hurt.  Stand on one foot instead).  You are much more alert when you are trying to balance on two legs of the chair. At least alert to balancing.  It is unclear if that child is actually listening.   It is also alerting to poke your neighbor, get up and sharpen your pencil, sit on your knees, tap your feet or any myriad of little fidgets.  However, it is not going to be alerting enough.  We need real exercise and movement for that.

So, if they get fidgety, kids get distracted.  If they don’t get fidgety, they likely get lethargic.  As the day wears on, heads are down on the desk or resting in their hands.  Eyes are wandering out the window.  Minds are wandering out the room.  And these are the “typical” kids.  For kids with attention problems, the fidgets or the lethargy may accompany even the morning classes.  We need movement to keep our blood pumping and our brains actively thinking.

So it’s best to provide lots of opportunities for movement, both at school and at home.  With exercise, we find:

  • There is improved blood flow to the brain.  That can only be good.  Attention and alertness are increased and we are more able to take in information.
  • Mood is better. Exercise lifts our moods and spirits. You will not be able to scold a grumpy child into cheering up, but you may be able to dance them into cheering up.
  • Brain cells build connections with each other.  Building these connections is the foundation of learning.  Exercise is not extraneous.  It is a foundation for good learning.

As with sleep, there is some research to indicate the exercising as children and adolescents has more impact on learning and memory than exercising as adults. Exercise WILL improve learning and memory in adults; it’s just that the benefits of exercise seem stronger in the developing brain of a child.  It is interesting that these things that we consider polar opposites – sleep and exercise – are both not only critical for learning, but are particularly critical for the developing brain.

There is some evidence (in animal research) that not everyone will respond identically to exercise as a learning enhancement. Some people get more benefit than others.  But so far, I am not aware of any research that says that exercise is bad for learning.  And since it is so good for our physical health, we should all get at least a little every day.

And how much exercise?  A minimum of thirty minutes a day is a good basic start.  An hour would be better.  So how to do that with kids:

  • The exercise does not have to be on one big 30 or 60 minute work-out.  Breaking it up is fine.  Twenty minutes of recess, three minute stretches during class time, some play or sports after school.  It can add up.
  • Exercise does not have to be rigorous.
    • Active play is fine.  Kids running around the yard playing some dramatic play are getting good exercise.  Climbing around the playground like a monkey is great.
    • Walking the dog counts as long as the dog is not ancient and slow.
    • Some chores count – raking leaves, shoveling snow, cleaning out the garage – anything that uses large muscles.
    • Don’t forget to dance.
    • Transporting one’s own self by walking to school or biking to a friend’s house counts.
  • And what if it’s too dark or cold in the winter after school?  Put on a dance video, place Dance Party on the Wii, do some yoga together, have wheelbarrow competition (who can take the most steps on their hands).

So 30 to 60 minutes is how much exercise we need.  Now, how about when to exercise.  I mention this because there are a few key times when it is particularly helpful for some kids.

  • Some kids really need a little movement in the morning to wake them up.  Fifty jumps on a mini-trampoline before breakfast or sending them back upstairs a few times to get stuff that is forgotten will work.  If there is time, a walk or run around the block is fantastic.  Outdoor exercise brings a little nature into the picture.  This is even more alerting.
  • That midday recess break is necessary for all kids, but actually critical for the kids who are most likely to get grounded from recess.  Fidgety kids with attention problems NEED their recess.  Parents need to insist that their child have this movement break.  If poor behavior seems to require a consequence, have the kid run a few laps around the yard instead of heading out for free play.  Making kids sit out recess just ruins their attention and mood for the afternoon, and then they are in trouble again.
  • Right after school is a good time for some children to have a movement break (probably most children).
  • Do make time for a little exercise before homework.  Kids are getting tired (and grumpy) and they need to get their blood pumping a bit in order to scrape together a little more concentration for the evening.  Five to ten minutes of shooting hoops, walking the dog or dancing can buy some time.  I send the Queen out to run a quick mile on those nights she is staring irritably at her homework. Often I go too (though I can’t keep her pace).  It perks us right up.

For young kids, active play is the best exercise for the body and the brain.  So let them play and play hard.  And don’t forget to play with your kids.  Shoot hoops with them, play chase, climb on the playground equipment, walk the dog with them, dance along with old Richard Simmons exercise videos and laugh. You are their most important role model and it is so much fun.

More and more, schools are recognizing (or remembering) how important physical activity is for the mind and learning.  More and more, exercise and active play are being re-introduced in the classroom.  Teachers take breaks to activate the brains of their students by alerting the bodies.  Students can do stretches, jumps, wiggles or even a yoga break.  The school occupational therapist can come in to develop strategies for those kids who need extra movement.  Check out your school’s policy on this and offer to help with strategies.

As the number of kids who are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder continues to rise, we have to explore what may be contributing.  Lack of movement and exercise are key culprits.

Dr. John Ratey, a leader in the field of Attention Deficit Disorder evaluation and treatment, co-wrote (along with Eric Hagerman) Spark:The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  This is a great book to remind us of the benefits of exercise to promote good learning and to reduce those pesky symptoms of attention problems or hyperactivity.

We are very lucky at our house to have found a great school for the Queen to attend.  The Girls Athletic Leadership School is a girls-only charter school in the Denver Public School System.  The philosophy is one of wellness, so exercise is a key component of the curriculum.  The girls start the day with exercises, but teachers must also find ways to incorporate movement into each class.  To see a short video which shows how exercise fits into their whole model, watch this video at the bottom of their high school page.

A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.  – A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Looks like everything old is new again.  I am now taking time off for a little brain break. Maybe a walk, maybe laundry (there are stairs involved so it counts for something).