Sunday, August 25, 2013

Drop and Give Me 20 - The Importance of Physical Activity to Learning

In this blog I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned about how important movement and exercise is to learning. This topic is particularly relevant at this point in the evolution of education because many schools are choosing to eliminate physical education and recess in order to spend more time on subject areas that will be tested on standardized tests.

The science supporting the positive effect of movement and exercise on learning is real.  Research shows that physical activity catalyzes a biological process that causes brain cells to bind to each other.  These connections are directly related to the brain’s ability to learn.  In her book The New Science of Teaching and Learning, Tracey Tokuhama-Esponisa refers to substantial studies which support alternating movement activities and thinking activities as a means of focusing and re-focusing attention in the classroom to enhance learning.  Further, she details studies which support the theory that increased blood flow from physical activity enhances concentration and memory. 
When in early elementary school, our oldest son could simply not sit still. He had a horrible time paying attention and was later identified as having ADHD.  There was a large gap between his exceptionally high IQ and his academic performance. We struggled through the years until he took a summer course at Riverside Millitary Academy.  When he would be distracted, fidgety, unable to concentrate and off task, his teacher would command “drop and give me 20.”  He learned that after doing 20 push-ups he could again focus.  His classroom performance skyrocketed.  Our daughter, now a junior in High School, can often be seen studying while performing gymnastics routines around the room.  It seems unorthodox, but it’s effective!    
There are probably many things to which a general decline in classroom performance across the country can be attributed.  Perhaps, chief among them is the insistence that our children sit down, sit still and pay attention.

In response, some schools are adding exercise balls as chairs in classrooms or allowing fidgeting children to stand behind their chairs instead of making them sit in them.  Others are intentionally adding movement to the class experience. Naperville Central High School in west Chicago has gained national attention for emphasizing fitness at their school. They believe that physical education class should be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness for the rest of their lives. The students develop healthy habits, learn how their bodies work and have fun. These educators also know how important physical activity is to learning.  In addition to being fit, the academic performance of the Naperville students in the classroom and on standardized tests has improved exponentially.  As one innovative NCHS physical education teacher put it, “It’s not really my job to teach them anything.  It’s my job to get them ready to learn.”   

There is a correlation between physical movement and academic achievement. Research also supports the idea that exercise may help improve the effects of addictions, stress, depression, anxiety, ADHD, menopause and even Alzheimer’s .  For more on this topic, read “Spark” by John J. Ratey, MD. 
Bottom line…movement can improve our ability to think and function well.  I think I’ll take that morning walk I’ve been putting off.

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