Physical activity and academic success
According to anthropologists, our ancestors walked about 12 miles a day in order to hunt and gather food. This means that as our complex brains were evolving, we were in motion. Over the next 10,000 years, however, civilization (i.e., technology, modern medicine, advanced tools) intervened and humans became much more sedentary. One obvious detriment is obesity, but weight is not the only reason to reactivate our bodies. Emerging research is finding strong connections between physical activity and brain function, a finding that could help solve another national crisis—poor student academic performance.
In John Medina's 2008 book, Brain Rules, which describes the 12 rules of how the brain works, rule #1 is "Exercise boosts brain power." Medina supports this with anecdotes, real-life scenarios and real science, uncovering many studies that prove that regular exercise, even just twice a week, offers significant advantages. Activity boosts memory, problem solving, reasoning, and attention, all of which are critical for success in the classroom.
Medina presents the work of Dr. Antronette Yancey, a researcher studying the effects of physical activity on children. She has found that physically fit children are able to identify visual stimuli faster, concentrate better, pay attention to a task for longer periods of time, and when exposed to physical education classes, perform better on core tests than children who had not been exposed. But Yancey's results go beyond the academic benefits to report less depression, anxiety, and negative behavior in active children.
In May 2011, Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, from the Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital released a study of 1st through 6th graders at an academically low-performing elementary school in Charleston, S.C. The researchers found that, after the students participated in 40 minutes of activity each day, five days a week (as opposed to their usual 40 minutes per week), the number of students who reached proficiency on the year-end state tests went from 55 percent to 68.5 percent.
These studies show we have every reason to be optimistic about the long-term effects of exercise on academic performance, even as an increased focus on test scores causes many schools to cut physical education programs in order to give students more class time. Therefore, Medina asks, "What if a school district inserted exercise into the normal curriculum on a regular basis, even twice a day?" For example, students could spend 20–30 minutes in morning aerobics and 20–30 minutes in afternoon strength training. Medina also imagines children walking on treadmills while listening to a math lecture or studying English. King and Scahill agree; their exercise program also had children learning academics during physical activity. For example, the younger children in their study hopped through ladders while naming the colors on each rung and traced geometric shapes while on scooters. Older children climbed a rock wall outfitted with numbers to help them through a math problem. While it may take some creativity, Medina, King, and Scahill show that an integrated program is not only possible but can also be successful.
The good news is that dormant cognitive abilities can make a comeback. Medina cites a study that measured the brain power of "couch potatoes," exercised them for a period of time, and then retested their brain power. These researchers consistently found that when inactive people began an aerobic exercise program, their mental abilities came back to life in as little as four months. A similar study examined the brain power of children as they began an exercise program of jogging for 30 minutes two or three times a week. After 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly. However, perhaps just as important, when the exercise program was taken away, children's scores plummeted back to pre-activity levels. This rise and fall of achievement in adults and children is the direct result of the brain receiving more or less oxygen.
When looking at the growing mound of evidence, it becomes obvious that physical education or physical activity is not a waste of students' time. As Medina notes, our ancestors could not have sat eight hours in the wild or they'd be something's lunch. Moving was a requirement for survival. So, while movement is no longer a requirement of survival, as it was for our ancestors, research shows that physical activity is critical not only to the physical well-being of children but also to their academic success.
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