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Exercise and the Brain: How Fitness Impacts Learning

While attending a three-day special education workshop, the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, was recommended to me on the basis that it provides incontrovertible evidence that exercise can help all students—especially special education students—improve in school. At a time when recess and physical education programs are being cut for test prep, I knew this was information worth having and sharing.

Exercise Can Improve Learning
Written by Dr. John J. Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the book explores the connection between exercise and the brain, providing strong evidence that aerobic exercise physically remodels the brain for peak performance on all fronts. Specifically, Dr. Ratey writes that exercise improves learning on three levels: “First, it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.” In short, not only does exercise help the brain get ready to learn but it actually makes retaining information easier.A suburban school district outside of Chicago is proving this point. The Naperville, Illinois district implemented an early morning exercise program called Zero Hour, which sought to determine whether working out before school gives students a boost in their reading ability and other subjects. Since introducing this program, the district has seen remarkable results in both wellness and academic performance.

Naperville’s philosophy was to teach kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness—a lifestyle skill with enormous long-term benefits. In fact, across the country, research shows students with higher fitness scores also have higher test scores. Physical activity has a “positive influence on memory, concentration, and classroom behavior.”

Dr. Ratey’s research also shows that exercise can be the best defense against a lot of the common mental health issues that students struggle with.

Our students face enormous stress in the classroom and in their lives, including peer pressure, work overload, and high stakes testing. Exercise controls the emotional and physical feelings of stress, and it also works at the cellular level. Physical activity is a natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress because it can ward off the ill effects of chronic stress and actually reverse them. In addition, studies show people who add physical activity to their lives become more socially active, which boosts confidence and helps establish and maintain social connections .

Anxiety and Panic Disorders
Dr. Ratey defines anxiety as a natural reaction to a threat, but worrying when there’s no real threat, to the point where one can’t function normally, is an anxiety disorder. Panic is the most intense form of anxiety, and I’ve witnessed my students having panic attacks during tests and cooperative learning situations, or sometimes just from the general pressures of school.

Spark points out that the majority of studies show aerobic exercise significantly reduces symptoms of anxiety disorders. Through exercise, people learn to alleviate anxiety and rebuild their confidence. Dr. Ratey points out that exercise reroutes the brain’s circuits, reduces muscle tension, and teaches a different outcome to an anxiety-provoking situation, ultimately setting an anxious person free from their worrisome tendencies.

Aerobic exercise is known to have a positive impact on depressive symptoms. Studies suggest that endorphins produced in the brain during exercise contribute to a general feeling of well-being. Exercise also boosts dopamine, which improves mood and jump-starts the attention span. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise a few days a week can do wonders for students who suffer from depressive moods.

School can be an especially excruciating environment for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because of the need to sit still, face forward, and listen. Dr. Ratey says structured exercise—in the form of martial arts, ballet, skateboarding, or gymnastics, for example—is one of the best treatment strategies for ADHD.

The combination of challenging both the brain and body is even better than just aerobic activity alone because the technicality of those sports activates brain areas that “control balance, timing, sequencing, evaluating consequences, switching, error correction, fine motor adjustment, inhibition, and, of course, intense focus and concentration.”

I’d highly recommend Spark to any teacher or parent interested in how exercise and the brain coincide. It will soon become clear that providing students with challenging fitness programs has numerous benefits. Starting slow, finding social support, mixing up activities, and keeping to a routine is a prescription for both brain and body health.

Being Physically active and fit holds utmost importance especially among today’s younger generation who is busy enjoying the luxuries of mobile, laptop and TV at an alarming rate and aren’t active and spirited on a daily basis. Being involved in electronic devices ain’t bad until and unless it is used as a source of entertainment for a limited time. In order to enjoy the beauty of life and to experience it to the fullest you must start getting involved in physical activities or sports. Being young, students have a lot of potential to develop a hobby that keeps their fitness regulated for the lifetime.

Being physically fit doesn’t necessarily require a rigorous schedule of workout. The array of benefits that come along with being physically fit and active are :-

Prevents Chronic diseases – Being Physically fit helps lower blood sugar levels and checks blood pressure. It also keeps a check on your health and you are less likely to suffer strokes or heart diseases.
Controls Weight – The current generation is prone to diseases owing to extra body weight and increased cholesterol levels. Being fit allows you to get rid of fat which in turn supports a healthy lifestyle.
Ensures strong bone, muscle and joint development – Adolescence is the ideal time when you can invest in your body and the results will last forever. Physical wellness and exercise ensures you to have strong bones, muscles and Joints.
Reduces stress – Stress is one of the most dominating health hazard in the younger generation. Being unfit makes you lose your confidence and is one of the most prominent factor of causing stress. Being fit makes you physically smart and helps better your inter-personal relationships. Thus, making you stress free.
Increases energy levels and confidence – Laziness is an associate of an unfit body. Being fit makes you active, spirited and energetic all the time. Thus making you more competent and prompt in your work and results. This ultimately reflects in your confidence level which gets boosted.
Being physically fit overhauls your personality. It lets you perform physical activities without being tired or restless. Being physically fit also ensures you being mentally fit and stress free. So it’s time for you to play some sports, get involved in physical activities to experience happiness, peace and to enjoy energetic and enthusiastic lifestyle

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