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Fit Bodies, Sharper Minds

Regular Exercise Can Improve Academic Performance

By Bobby Scott, Headmaster of Perimeter School in Johns Creek

At the end of each school year, I have a chat with my eighth grade boys. This is the last grade of our school, so this is sort of an exit interview. “So guys,” I ask, “over the last 9 years here, what did you like and what did you not?”

It’s an enjoyable time, usually humorous. Comments range from “We want rock band classes” to “The toilet paper is too rough.” The comment I receive most often, however, is, “Don’t ever remove the eighth grade daily recess—we need it!”

That 30 minute respite is unique. It is non-orchestrated, free, and active play time, very “old school”. Daily, students’ heart rates rise. There’s no waiting for turns, no referees, and unless the weather is extreme, the recess is held outside.

We began this tradition in 1983, long before the current research supporting the idea that exercise during the school day correlates to higher academic achievement. Now, studies show that educators can no longer overlook the benefits of play. Occasional P.E. classes are not cutting it.

Are you familiar with BDNF, IGF-1, VEGF and FGF-2? No, they’re not codes for a free Starbucks coffee or Delta flight confirmations. These are substances that renew and stimulate the growth of new brain cells, increasing our ability to learn. According to research summarized in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey, M.D., these proteins and chemicals are increased significantly by exercise, resulting in optimized alertness, attention and motivation; stimulated nerve cells, allowing for the increased logging of new information; and elevated development of new nerve cell growth.

A few years back, the success story of School District 203 in Naperville, Illinois gained attention. Eighth graders in the district took the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) test in 1999. TIMSS high scores are typically dominated by students in Singapore and other Asian nations. Naperville students finished above Singapore—placing first in the world in science and sixth in math.

Ratey attributes that success to the district’s “unique approach to physical education.” One noteworthy example of that approach is “Zero Hour,” a before school exercise class at Naperville Central High School, open to any students willing to take the challenge. At the encouragement of P.E. teacher Neil Duncan, students who typically spent most of their time outside school in front of some sort of screen signed up. In one semester, the exercising students’ test scores increased in reading and comprehension by 17 percent over their peers who slept in.

Studies are increasing throughout the U.S., finding the same simple result: higher fitness levels = higher academic success. The FitnessGram study conducted by the California Department of Education showed that fit kids doubled their academic test scores when compared with kids who did not exercise.

This raises some questions that need to be addressed. An important one is, “Are we talking about ‘jocks’? Does my child, who has no interest in sports, have little chance to improve academically?” The answer is that fitness has little to do with athletic prowess.

Going back to Naperville, Neil Duncan was surprised to find that as he began to record the heart rates of kids during exercise, many of the slowest students had the highest aerobic heart rates. It was not athletic skill, but faithful, consistent exertion over time that produced results. The exercise itself did not increase the scores. Instead, the activity enabled students who studied and prepared for their classes to perform at a higher level.

Recent studies on brain function are going beyond academics, finding kids can also reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and symptoms of attention-deficit disorder through increased physical activity.

At Perimeter, our teachers are also excited to see the results in their own lives and classrooms. But it’s important to remember that regular exercise, learning and growing require a lifestyle change, not just for children, but for adults as well. As parents and educators, we must be willing to set an example to inspire a healthier new generation. By developing healthier habits and encouraging our children to do the same, we can improve not just their physical fitness, but their mental fitness as well—changes that will benefit them not just in school, but throughout their lives.

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