EducationWeek.org recently reported the results of the Gateshead Millenium Study, which found that “children ages 8 to 10 spend more than 80 percent of their waking hours in sedentary behavior,” and that this is having a negative effect on their academic success. The findings of this British research seem to grow directly from a Dutch study published earlier this year in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. The Dutch study relied largely on research conducted on American students, and discovered that though researchers aren’t exactly sure why, higher levels of physical activity had a “significant positive relationship” to higher levels of academic performance. Different possible reasons for this include:
- When individuals exercise, increased blood and oxygen flows to the brain and positively influences important brain functions such as cognition and retention.
- Students who engaged in physical activity were “more likely to behave in the classroom,” possibly because the energy created by difficult feelings such as stress and frustration can be relieved, at least temporarily, by expelling some energy through exercise, which also releases endorphins that help create better moods.
- Involvement in sports helps students learn to follow rules and instructions, developing disciplined work habits and concentration.
This means that our students, who by most reports are less physically active today than ever before, cannot possibly be more active learners if their bodies do not get enough exercise to fuel the biological activity necessary to active learning.
Research Supports the Need for Student Exercise
None of this seems to be potentially newsworthy on the face of it: in addition to nationwide fears of childhood obesity and general student health, many studies have long argued that the integration of regular vigorous activity actually helps improve mental focus and facilitates learning. In fact, Gretchen Reynolds reported in The New York Times in April that “scientists in just the past few months have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhances cognitive flexibility. Exercise, the latest neuroscience suggests, does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.” This is because the brain is a muscle, and it needs to be exercised in multiple ways in order to continue functioning at an optimum level. In addition to intellectual stretching, physical exercise seems to reinvigorate the brain’s neurons.
At least, that’s what I think the study showed- I probably don’t have enough active brain cells to interpret this research more thoroughly, because I do not exercise as much as I need to. In fact, this whole study is bad news for me: Remember the 1995 Morgan Freeman/Brad Pitt thriller Seven, in which a serial killer on the loose in a dreary unnamed city murders people he thinks represent the seven deadly sins? One of his victims was guilty of something I could be accused of pretty much every day: sloth. If I were in that film, you would have also seen me tied to a dirty old bed, eyes glazed, muscles atrophied. Come to think of it, you can see this at my house on a regular basis, except that I don’t need to be tied down to lay around in a state of stupor.
I’m exaggerating, of course. I’m certainly not guilty of all forms of sloth because I engage in a vigorous and active intellectual life. And I do get moderate exercise on a somewhat regular basis. But like many American adults, and many working in academia (except for those in the exercise science department), I lead a fairly sedentary life in which all the work I conduct is somewhat physically limited: I sit at a desk in my office or the library, and then sit around some more in conference rooms to conduct the business that keeps schools going. I have long believed that I need to sit still for long periods of time to concentrate and think through difficult theories and intellectual problems. Apparently, I’ve been going about it all wrong: I should be exercising a lot more not only for my physical health, but also to hold onto the fairly limited number of brain cells I have left.
How Can Educators Incorporate Physical Activity into Education?
For students at all levels of education, from K-12 to college and graduate school, exercise could be their best academic friend. However, in addition to joining sports teams and participating in intramural activities, it may seem that it’s difficult to avoid the necessary desk work of academic study.
That’s where resourceful educators come in handy. There are some practical and simple ways to incorporate physical activity into your classes. As a college professor, I am occasionally able to bring my students outside the lecture hall to show them examples of building styles, walking tours of historic locations, and at one university walked my students to the Kent and Jackson State memorials on campus to discuss those events. Every semester I make my students practice Cold War era “duck and cover” air raid drills to employ a little “living history” in the classroom, and once I even led an entire-and entirely reluctant-class through the history of twentieth century dance styles to help them interpret social changes over time.
These opportunities are few and far between, though. Fortunately, many educators have been active on the blogosphere, generating good suggestions for ways to bring physical activity into the classroom and reporting on successful efforts to do so:
- Lessons from the Middle author Krystal Mills suggests having teams of students physically act out or demonstrate new concepts.
- TeachingBlogAddict admits that physical activities can also break up some of the boredom and ennui that can take over even the best classrooms from time to time.
- Healthy Schools Campaign points out that the Fit to Learn program has made a positive difference for many students and helps with classroom management issues, too.
- TeachHub.com suggests replacing computer desk chairs with large exercise balls that encourage balance, teaching measurement through jumping activities, and even seems to have stolen my “dance through the ages” technique, which I am pleased to see can’t be all that corny if other people use it!
For educators, the classroom is not the only format in which to fight for more physical activity for students. It’s also a political wake-up call. Across the country, city and state cuts have led to drastic reductions in physical education programs. Late last year, Florida State Rep. Larry Metz (R) proposed a law that would eliminate the state physical education requirement for middle school students, in the name of “local control.”
It’s time for educators in all subjects to join forces and fight for the restoration of physical education to our curricula. It’s not just for the good of our students’ physical health, but all the research indicates that students learning increases through regular physical exercise. More physically active students are more active learners.
And while we’re at it, educators should not forget the importance of their own physical activity. Rather than sit behind a desk or stand behind a podium, replace your desk chair with a balance ball, and get out from behind the podium by moving around the class. I often range around the classroom, speaking from different corners. It helps me engage more with students who don’t sit front and center in the room, find out who is texting and who is staring off into space instead of taking notes. It also really keeps students awake-they never know where I will end up and have to pay attention!
Do you have any great ideas about how to incorporate physical activity into your classrooms? Share them here!