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Exercise and Learning

By Vreni Gurd

CBC news (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) put out a very interesting story about City Park High School in Saskatoon, that put treadmills and exercise bikes into a math classroom, and before doing any math, the kids strapped on their heart-rate monitors and did 20 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise. This is an alternative school for those with learning difficulties, and over half the students have ADHD. They couldn't sit still, many had behavioural problems, and they couldn't learn. Well, the cardio equipment went in the classroom in February, and by June, pretty much all the kids had jumped a full grade in reading, writing and math. After doing the exercise the kids were suddenly able to sit still and focus on what they were learning, and they were able to understand what they were being taught. The exercise altered their brain chemistry enough to make learning possible, AND it greatly improved their behaviour.

With physical education frequently being cut out of curriculums to make time for academics, this should give pause for thought. Taking 20 to 40 minutes a day for sustained physical activity improves learning and grades in academic subjects more than actually using that time for the academic subjects themselves. Sustained aerobic exercise of between 65 to 75% of one's max heart rate wakes up the frontal cortex of the brain, the part that is needed for behavioural control. (To figure out your child's correct heart-rate zone, subtract his/her age from 220, and take 65 to 75% of that to get the target heart beats per minute.) Exercise causes the brain to create more nerve cells (neurogenesis), makes those nerves stronger, and helps them withstand stress, and improves neurotransmitter function, which helps the brain work better. Dr. Ratey, one of the key researchers in this area, noted not only improvements in those with ADHD, but also in those with bipolar disorder and schitzophrenia as well.

Alison Cameron, the grade 8 teacher at City Park School, noted that between February and June, the attention span of her students increased from 10 minutes to 3 hours. Many of the kids got off ritalin, and the kids were coming to school every day so she had the opportunity to actually teach them, which also improved learning. The students reported feeling happier, less angry, and definitely smarter, which improved their confidence levels, and made them realize that they would be capable of succeeding in life if they applied themselves.

In this day and age where we are moving less and less, sitting at the computer more and more, and children are less frequently allowed outside to play on their own, we need to ensure that kids get daily physical education, and beyond that, we need to make sure that every child and teen is actually moving enough during PE. In most PE classes, 80% of the kids are standing around waiting for their turn, or simply trying to avoid participating. It takes at least 20 minutes of sustained activity three times a week to make the difference in behavioural and academic performance, and that should be an important focus of school PE class in my opinion.

We are meant to move, and if we don't we are not as resilient and we can't use our brains maximally. So parents, if you want your kids to be smarter and better behaved and your school does not provide adequate movement time for your kids, perhaps family-based physical activity should become a priority. Creating the exercise habit young will also help them maintain a healthy body weight, and set them up for a life of good health.

If you want to see the original CBC documentary, click here. I think it is an amazing, hopeful story.


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