+ Fit Body: Fit Mind, Better Grades

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Shari Wargo, on Edutopia online, writes that the term “dumb jock” is probably an oxymoron.

Biology and education research now shows that regular exercise benefits the brain in a number of ways.  Regular workouts in the gym or on the playground improve attention span, memory and learning.  They also reduce stress and the effects of ADHD.   They even delay cognitive decline in old age.

John J. Ratey, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says “Memory retention and learning functions are all about brain cells actually changing, growing and working better together.  Exercise creates the best environment for that process to occur.”

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 the brain.  More blood means more oxygen, and therefore, better-nourished brain tissue.

It also spurs the brain to produce more of the protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” BDNF.    Ratey called BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”  This very powerful protein encourages brain cells to grow, interconnect and communicate in new ways.

Studies have also shown that exercise plays a big part in the production of new brain cells, particularly in the dentate gyrus, which is a part of the brain heavily involved in learning and memory skills.

But it wasn’t until recently that researchers turned to the study of children.  In children, exercise may have more impact.

The brain’s frontal lobe, thought to play a role in cognitive control, keeps growing throughout the school years, according to 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.

Hillman published a study  in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, which involved 259 Illinois third- and fifth-graders who were put through standard physical education routines (e.g. pushups, timed runs).  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 passd, the better they scored on the achievement test.”

The effects appeared regardless of gender and socioeconomic differences: it seems that no matter 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 pays off in academic achievement.  A study published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 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.

Professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia, Phillip Tomporowski, who was a member of the team that conducted this 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.  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.  This study 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.

At Naperville Central High School in Illinois, educators put this idea into practice for nearly four years.  Officials created learning-readiness PE in 2005; it was an early morning class for 12 students who needed help with literacy skills.

The students rotated through different aerobic activities wearing heart monitors to ensure their heart rate was in the target zone (160-190 beats per minute).

These students then joined other students who had not exercised in a special literacy class.  The school’s instructional coordinator for PE and health, Paul Zientarski,  says the students who took PE prior to class showed one and a quarter year’s growth on the standardized reading test after just one semester.   The exercise-free students gained just nine-tenths of a year.

Then Zientarski used the same approach for math-troubled student.  He scheduled some in PE before an introductory algebra class. 

These results were even more dramatic: the exercising students increased their math test scores by 20.4 percent (the other students gained only 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.  It clams them down, it makes them more willing to learn, and they feel good about themselves.”

Whick Exercises Are Best?

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, but also add juggling, gymnastics, and tumbling, which require concentration and provide positive stress to the brain, enhancing learning.

These model programs have inspired similar efforts nationwide.  But in this time of economic pressure, many PE programs are on the chopping block.  Illinois is the only state that required 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, who is communications manager for PE4life, a nonprofit organization in Kansas City, MO.  Her organization has trained some 250 schools nationwide to create positive PE classes and recess activities.

It is worth noting that one inner-city school in Kansas City, after implementing PE4life, boosted PE from one day to five days a week.  Within 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.

Teachers also reap rewards from exercise.  The US Department of Agriculture recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise most days to manage body weight and prevent weight gain.

Researchers believe that the more regular your exercise routine, the more long-term benefits your brain will get.

So keep working out regularly; join your students in a 20-minute romp around the playground.  You will all be better for it.

source: article at edutopia.org by Shari Wargo on 5/28/09.  www.edutopia.org

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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