By Phil Nast February 17, 2011 5:22 pm
Exercise boosts brain power is rule #1 in John Medina’s Brain Rules. As little as 30 minutes of aerobic exercise twice a week can produce measurable improvement in the brain’s executive functions: solving problems, maintaining attention, and inhibiting emotional impulses. This sounds like an inexpensive prescription for a healthy classroom.
Medina is not the only expert stressing the importance of exercise. In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008), John J. Ratey also makes the case that exercise helps the brain. Dr. Ratey, a Harvard psychiatrist, discusses some recent findings in a 2008 podcast. Ratey’s website includes links to other articles on the positive effects of exercise on academic achievement and behavior. Evidence suggests that exercise can help students and adults with ADHD/ADD by elevating levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that play key roles in attention and thinking.
The school environment is artificial. Requiring children to sit at a desk six to eight hours a day began with mandatory education. The first school desk was patented in 1889. Sitting most of the day is not natural. We want and need to move. Some children act on the need repeatedly. A wandering buddy of mine was once hogtied with masking tape. (Eisenhower was President then, so let’s forgive Miss McDermott.) I’ve met plenty of students who can’t sit. My son is one. Are most boys? All of us have an urge to get up and move during the day. Only school children are routinely denied the right to act on the urge.
Those of us who try to get regular aerobic exercise recognize how much better we feel after exercise — even, or maybe especially, when we find it hard to get started. Exercise relieves stress. We feel energized. We think more clearly. As research shows, when you get blood flowing, the brain works better.
Though we may understand that exercise is good for learning, we don’t provide for it, especially in schools:
“PE and recess are rapidly disappearing across the nation. According to the American Heart Association, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education programs or some equivalent.”
At the same time, taking away recess and other physical activity is a common disciplinary measure, a practice akin to teaching a drowning man to swim by pinching his nose.
So what can we do? Medina suggests recess twice a day – aerobic exercise in the morning, strength building in the afternoon. He slips into the utopian when he envisions individual classroom treadmills. But there’s no denying the value of walking. A brisk ten minute walk has a more lasting energizing effect than a cup of coffee. A friend whose first school bordered a wood regularly took his students on walks and talked science and poetry along the way. Tai Chi and Chi Kung can be effective. Here are four techniques that could be used in a classroom from fitness expert Joel Kirsch. (http://www.edutopia.org/classroom-exercise-video) Links to additional articles about exercise are on Kirsch’s edutopia page. Every morning in a nearby elementary school, a gym teacher leads the entire school in calisthenics. Deskercise is an option when aerobic exercise is not. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101149470) Here are detailed descriptions for deskercises. (http://uclivingwell.ucop.edu/deskercise/neck.html)
No two schools can provide the same opportunities. As with everything else in teaching, flexibility and adaptation are necessary. Maybe you already have a school or classroom program. If so, pass it on. And if the value of huffing and puffing is ever questioned, point out that fit kids perform better on standardized tests.