BRAIN FITNESS! Connecting Exercise and Learning

I recently attended a presentation by Harvard Psychiatry Professor and best-selling author, Dr. John Ratey. He wrote SPARK! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, which I read. I was very interested in hearing about his research, especially with the of No Child Left Behind Act (which requires schools to raise students’ test scores in core academic subjects) and the resultant cutbacks in physical education classes and recess.

Dr. Ratey began his presentation by stating that he is on a mission to put exercise, recess and play back into our schools. Being an early childhood and school age active play advocate myself, I was thrilled. He shared emerging research and case studies that correlate exercise with a wide range of brain-related benefits: improving attention, reducing stress and anxiety, and staving off cognitive decline.

Ratey says that exercise is the single most important tool people have to optimize brain function. He doesn’t claim that exercise makes kids smarter, but he says it can make them more ready to learn. The prefrontal cortex-- which plays a major role in executive function (thinking processes that involve planning, organizing, abstract thought or self-control) -- is most affected by exercise. Laboratory studies in mice and humans show that exercise prompts the brain to produce greater amounts of a protein called BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which Ratey likes to call “Miracle-Gro®” for the brain. It encourages brain cells to sprout synapses, which are crucial to forming the connections the brain needs in order to learn. BDNF also strengthens cells and protects them from dying. Other research also suggests that exercise plays a role in neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells, in middle-aged and older adults and in laboratory animals.

Ratey shared a case study that I found interesting: At Naperville Central High School in IL, many students participate in 45-minute early-morning fitness-based PE sessions where they can choose from more than a dozen activities (treadmills, elliptical machines, stationary bikes, jumping rope, lifting weights, running, etc.) Students on average raised their grades by one letter just by participating in this “Learning Readiness PE Class.” This is a new approach to PE, and I find it confirms for me the research mentioned above that exercise helps prep the brain for learning.

And what about our youngest learners? Ratey emphasized that young children love to move and should be engaged in play activities that are vigorous and fun. For our young children, we need to provide instant and active involvement for every child. He mentioned a new book by Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. He said that every early childhood teacher should have it. Ratey states on the jacket cover: “This is one of the most important books I have ever read… Without play and physical activity, we can’t cultivate the skills necessary to handle changing times… Anyone who cares about the future of our world should read this book. It is a gift.” I gave myself the gift of Brown’s book, PLAY and Ratey’s book, SPARK. Perhaps you will consider doing the same for yourself or any preschool, school-age or early childhood educator, caregiver or parent you know.

Current statistics show that some 37% of U.S. schoolchildren are overweight, one in five American 4 year olds are obese and only 6% of schools now offer physical education five days a week. At the same time, kids are spending an average of six hours per day in front of a screen of some sort—television, computer or handheld device. Inactivity is killing our brains as well as our bodies.

The more we know about brain development and the importance of play, the better teachers and parents we will be. Keep moving, keep learning!