Exercise before starting a new task helps to focus attention and makes leaning more likely


By Jerry Storie

I am paraphrasing, but guess who said “In order to succeed in life, a person has two means: education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together.” Of course, it was Plato, his message perhaps even more relevant today, some two thousand years later. The question is, why haven't we got the message yet?

The recent Winnipeg Free Press editorial decrying the lack of sidewalks or paths so school children can walk to school is a much-needed cry for some clear thinking about the benefits of exercise. School divisions have occasionally shown an interest in daily physical education like getting kids to walk to school, but it has never sparked a real revolution. Physical activity – time at school or spare time at home – is seldom used as a time for strenuous aerobic activity. Beginning in the late 70’s new research was just starting to confirm the short and long term benefits of a good work-out, one that got the heart rate and breathing rate up substantially. 

Physical activity helps kids concentrate in class and it offers our growingly sedentary young people an alternative to screen time. Since that time, the benefits of energetic and consistent exercise have become crystal clear. Among its other benefits, it has been found that aerobic exercise can help create new brain cells, something that, until recently, we have been told couldn't happen. Exercise that gets your heart rate up and provides a cardio work-out for twenty minutes is magic. 

In his book Spark, John Ratey, a Harvard neuroscientist, looks at how exercise can enhance learning. In the early 1990’s, the Naperville School District in Naperville, Illinois, began an exercise program, starting in the fifth grade, that allowed students to track their own fitness. In 1999, the District decided to have all of its students participate in the highly regarded international Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study to test its students against international standards. Although schools in the US have never fared well in international testing programs, the Naperville District grade 8 students scored # 1 in the world in science and # 6 in the world in Math, an unheard-of accomplishment for an American public school. 

In Canada, Saskatoon's City Park Collegiate was the first school to try to demonstrate the benefits of using exercise as a springboard to learning. The results, according to Grade 8 teacher Allison Cameron, who initiated the programs, were miraculous. Cameron had her students spend twenty minutes on a treadmill getting their heart rates up while watching a documentary or reading. Then her students did mental math while in the weight room. Academically the program was a remarkable success. But there were other benefits.

Cameron, like others who have tried to combine exercise with education, found that other student behavior also improved. Exercise before starting a new task helps to focus attention and makes leaning more likely according to Dr. Ratey. The program, he maintains, offers a viable solution to the modern problem of "sedentarism," or sitting down too much, which he blames for obesity, lack of motivation and growing levels of depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorder.

Because aerobic exercise has been shown to increase several hormones essential to mental health, like serotonin, it helps students deal with the stress of learning and growing. Nonetheless, it doesn't seem to matter how much information we get, how relevant or sensible the advice, human beings are slow to change their behavior. The recent ParticipAction Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth (2022) is just the latest plea to get kids active. The research underlying the report is sound and unequivocal. Active kids have “better brain function” and are healthier. Here, in summary form, are the top ten things the research showed:

  1. “Students who exercise before a test show stronger brain function than those who don’t exercise before a test.” 
  2. “Children with poor aerobic fitness appear to have more difficulty solving problems and are more likely to make mistakes when trying to sort out a challenge.”

iii. “Sections of the brain dedicated to memory and learning (hippocampus and basal ganglia) are larger in active children in comparison to their less active peers.”

  1. “Being physically active can boost memory in children and youth, including children with brain-based disabilities.” 
  2. “Active kids are better equipped to get creative. Even if they aren’t artistic, creativity can manifest in think-on-your-feet scenarios such as strategizing for a game, leading a team project or solving a math problem.” 
  3. “Kids who participate in physical activity have more focus and longer attention spans, compared to their less active peers.”

vii. “Kids who are active experience a rush of feel-good brain chemicals (serotonin and dopamine).

viii. “Children and youth who are fit benefit from this rush of chemicals and experience fewer depression-related symptoms than those who are not fit.”

  1. “Evidence suggests that physical activity may help lower feelings of anxiety in children and youth.” 
  2. “Dance and team sports may be especially effective in children and youth with brain-based disabilities” 

In terms of our children, more than two decades of research on the importance of regular, strenuous exercise has shown the benefits to mental and physical health. And yet, we are not using that knowledge effectively to improve the physical and mental well-being of our kids.

It is time we found a way to successfully integrate physical activity into the daily lives of students. Health Canada suggest that 30% of young people between five and 17 are overweight and the repercussions may impact their mental health and wellness as much as their physical health. It is time to take the challenge more seriously if we really want to help our kids be their best.

Jerry Storie is a former teacher, school superintendent and associate professor and Dean of Education at Brandon University.

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