Exercise the body, strengthen the mind: How physical activity impacts learning

New York City elementary schools are not providing enough physical education classes, according to a city comptroller audit released October 4. None of the Big Apple schools investigated met state guidelines regarding physical education, and the city's department of education has not filed a physical education plan with the state since 1982, the audit discovered.


Commenting on the report, an education department spokesperson acknowledged that physical education is an important part of combating childhood obesity. But physical activity might not only keep students' bodies in shape--gym class might help keep GPAs and standardized test scores healthy, too.

Exercise and the brain

In a 2008 Educational Psychology Review article, researchers noted that an "implicit belief" has existed since the ancient Greeks that physical activity improves intellectual ability; however, the "psychological benefits" of exercise have only been the subject of serious scientific study recently. In part, this is because technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging have for the first time enabled scientists to investigate how exercise affects the brain's biological processes.

Among the many studies that used MRIs to determine how physical activity relates to brain activity, a 2004 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a six-month routine of regular walking activated certain areas of the prefrontal cortex. In 2009, a University of Illinois study used another modern technology, electroencephalographic monitoring, to see how a 20-minute period of walking affected the brains of 9-year-olds. The researchers discovered that walking stimulated neuroelectric signals known as P3 amplitude.

Walking, running, jumping rope, playing soccer and other aerobic activities also increase the number of capillaries that carry oxygen into the brain and dispose of carbon dioxide and other waste materials, John P. Allegrante, a professor of health education at Columbia University, wrote in an Education Week article.

Does activity = achievement?

Research has not only shown that exercise stimulates specific brain activity, but it's also focused on how these physiological processes impact learning and cognitive performance.

The 2009 EEG experiment also assessed how the 9-year-olds did on reading, math and spelling tests after their 20-minute walks, when their P3 amplitude was increased. The students' reading comprehension went up about one full grade level after the exercise.

A study published this year in Health Psychology demonstrated that exercise can also improve math skills. In this study, overweight grade school children exercised vigorously for 40 minutes every day for three months. MRIs showed the physical activity spurred increased prefrontal cortex activity, which corresponded to a rise in intelligence test scores by an average of 3.8 points. The researchers characterized the students' math score improvements as "remarkable," given that the students were not taught lessons specific to the skills and knowledge tested.

The prefrontal brain areas stimulated by aerobic exercise are associated with executive function – something likely to help students on standardized tests where students must manage their time, remember material, and sustain their concentration. Robert Lazers says this is the case at Charles N. Holden Elementary School in Chicago, where he is assistant principal.

"Students in my school have scored significantly higher on their quarterly standardized benchmark tests after recess was implemented," Lazers notes. "The results could be based on better teaching practices, but seeing the improvement of focus due to the increase of physical activity, which was noted by the teachers, this is a strong indication that P.E. and recess are essential to an increase in student academic growth."

Physical education 2.0

Given studies like these, it might seem like common sense that schools in New York City and elsewhere need to prioritize physical education. But this can be difficult given space and budget constraints. Illustrating the dilemmas faced by many schools, The New York Times reported one overcrowded public school in Brooklyn does not have a gym, while a school in the Bronx has a gym but cannot afford to pay a physical education teacher.

Darla Castelli, one of the researchers who undertook the EEG experiment, proposed some innovative work-arounds for resource-strapped schools.

Castelli says that teachers can include physical activities in the classroom and in the report used the example of having children act like falling leaves while reading poetry about autumn. Robert Lazers also said that teachers who do not specialize in physical education might have to play a bigger role in getting students' heart rates up. He provided soft footballs and jump ropes to teachers and urged them to encourage students to use the equipment during recesses.

"This does not take the place of P.E. but does give the students more activity than just one or two classes of P.E. a week," Lazers explains.

While the studies mentioned above should encourage online learners to get active to augment their web-based coursework, the Internet also could provide a novel solution for schools lacking gyms. Researcher Castelli suggested these schools use the Web to broadcast exercise routines that students can do in their classrooms.

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