Exercise and the Student Brain

Type: Article
Topics: Health & Wellness, School Administrator Magazine

September 01, 2016

An interview with neuroscience expert John Ratey on misconceptions by educators about the mind-body connection
Students Exercising

John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and internationally recognized expert in neuropsychiatry, has dedicated much of his career to studying the transformative effects of exercise on the brain.

In his nationally bestselling book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown and Co., 2008), he uncovers research that shows that physical activity can reduce stress, sharpen thinking, lift one’s mood and boost memory.

In a recent interview, Ratey discussed the relevance of the mind-body connection to K-12 education and misconceptions about the importance of exercise in schools. He also describes a school district in Naperville, Ill., that revolutionized its physical education program and saw extraordinary results in the classroom.

Ratey’s responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness. A full version of the interview can be found at this link.

You believe the link between exercise and the brain is clearly relevant to K-12 education. How does physical activity affect student learning?

Ratey: Exercise helps increase our ability to regulate our emotions and improves neuroplasticity, which means it improves the environment for our brain cells to grow. So with exercise, we see an improvement in the ability of students to regulate their emotions, a decrease in discipline problems, an increase in participation, an increase in attendance and a subsequent increase in grades, test scores and success in the classroom.

Schools are learning that exercise is a great way to help their children become better learners. At any age, exercise increases time on task and boosts executive function, which includes working memory, sorting, sequencing, imagining, consequence evaluation — all factors that are important in the classroom.

Why is promoting exercise in schools especially important right now?

Ratey: We obviously have a health care crisis with the increase of obesity among our kids in general. But I think people are recognizing that movement is not just for the body; it has an impact in our brains.

Today, 30 percent or more of our children have generalized anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder or depression. We’re seeing more problems with behavior, like bullying, and attendance. Kids are dropping out of school at higher rates. All of these issues can be helped enormously by a very good physical education program, as well as adequate time and importance given to recess.

What are the common misconceptions about the importance of physical education in schools?

Ratey: Administrators often think of physical education as something for athletes, but it’s anyone but the athletes that we’re talking about. We’re talking about all kids, especially those who aren’t athletic. It’s the kids who are uncoordinated or overweight, who aren’t on any kind of exercise trajectory, who get the most help with a fitness-based physical education program.

Most educators think that physical education is really just about teaching people how to do sports. It isn’t about Friday Night Lights, but about getting all the kids as fit as possible. This leads to better citizens, better students who are healthier and much more able to do well in their schoolwork.

In Spark, you cite the Naperville 203 Community Unit School District, in a suburb west of Chicago, as a district that has successfully implemented the unique approach to physical education you promote. What impresses you most about the district’s efforts?

Ratey: For more than two decades now, the essence of physical education in Naperville 203 has been to teach fitness instead of sports. Students are assessed on effort rather than skill. They develop healthy habits and a sense of fun, along with knowledge of how their bodies work. They get hooked on moving instead of sitting in front of the television.

When the district measured the body mass index of each of their students in 2003, only 3 percent were overweight. At the same time, 99 percent of the roughly 20,000 kids took the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) test, which is designed to compare students’ knowledge levels from different countries in two key areas. They came in No. 1 in the world in science and No. 6 in math.

At a time when the importance of STEM is being emphasized, administrators should note that the more fit a person is, the better they’re going to be able to do in math and science. This has been shown over and over again.

Do you see any international models of physical education in schooling that we ought to be considering?

Ratey: In the Netherlands, the ministry of education has begun to study the effect of exercise on learning. They’re finding that when children are actually exercising is the best time for them to learn difficult math or language principles that require a lot of brain power, whether it’s memorization or manipulation of information.

Singapore also has spent a lot of time and money on increasing their kids’ physical activity. Even though they’re amongst the top scorers in the world on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and other tests, they know their kids are extraordinarily stressed. Not only will physical activity help them compete better on these tests, but it will also help them deal better emotionally with the kind of stress they meet.

Of course, the one country that most people know about is Finland. It’s always among the top three in the world in testing. A part of that is their emphasis on physical activity. All classes are one hour long, made up of 45 minutes of classroom work and 15 minutes of play or exercise. This carries on through high school and the kids there, as we know, score among the best in the world.