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By Dan Lawler, Ph.D.

Education Consultant

Exercise4Learning, LLP

As an elementary principal for over 30 years, I have witnessed many strategies and techniques that influence student motivation to get fit.  Motivation, as we know, can be induced artificially – i.e. fear, candy, rewards, etc. – but the effects are temporary.  There is no substitute for the real thing – intrinsic motivation to participate and engage.  The fact remains that physicians, educators, and heath experts are trying to unlock the key to the increasing rates of childhood obesity, sedentary life-styles, and Type 2 diabetes of today’s youth.  Unfortunately, the negative trends continue, and we have to ask ourselves the question why are efforts not more effective?

The experts offer many suggestions that can make a positive difference toward engaging students in fitness.  For example, having our kids write goals and develop strategies to reach those goals can help them keep healthy resolutions.   Adding variety to their exercise routine can keep students from getting bored.  Including music, especially a person’s favorite songs, can add motivation to kids’ commitment to work out.  Another idea is to celebrate small steps as a young person strives toward larger goals.  When parents take on the responsibility of role models, it can be a very effective strategy by setting a positive example for children to follow.  In addition, parents can lobby their districts to increase the amount of physical activity built into the day, especially since many schools are decreasing physical education and increasing seat time.  These are just a few commendable strategies, but there is another consideration and strategy to get kids active.

There is something to be learned from classroom instruction about student motivation that can be applied to improving our children’s fitness.  We know a great deal about classroom instructional strategies, how kids learn, and basic principles of brain research that apply to engaging and motivating students.  Higher student interest in learning begins when the attention system in the brain is engaged.  Dr. John Ratey, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, points out that the attention system has four components which, together, create the brain’s overall ability to monitor the environment: arousal, motor orientation, novelty detection (limbic system), and executive function.  Arousal is the first step in increasing alertness and paying attention to the environment.  Motor orientation allows us to physically reorient our bodies so that we can redirect our senses to the new stimuli.  The limbic system detects novelty and reward.  Finally, the executive organization commands action and reaction and integrates our attention with short- and long-term goals (John Ratey, 2001).

The same process is involved with motivating students to be fit  One new strategy that schools are utilizing to capture students’ interest is ExerGaming®, an innovation which uses technology and gaming to inspire kids to exercise.  For a long time video games were seen as the enemy to active life styles for our youth.  In fact, many of the games developed did foster even more sedentary life styles by increasing screen time for kids through games.  An outgrowth of that industry became a new concept in gaming which engaged students in physical activity in order to play the game.  The most notable was Wii, developed by Nintendo.  Today, the options are plentiful.

When you consider the impact that ExerGaming® has on motivation, it is apparent that all aspects of the attention system are engaged. It is a new and exciting way to trigger the arousal system of our kids and motivate them to exercise.  Students are automatically drawn to the technology, gaming, and inherent fun the equipment provides.  DDR (Dance-Dance-Revolution), Wii, XaviX, Exerbikes, Light-Space, Makoto, Sports Wall and others attract students to engage and play.  Once students are aroused and attending, the reward and novelty system boosts students’ focus and commitment to exercise.  This novelty system takes note of the new stimuli provided by ExerGaming® and directs the students’ focus toward that choice.   I have observed that energetic reaction hundreds of times with children totally excited about their ExerGaming® experience.  There’s a sense of reward that comes from immediate feedback, competing against oneself, the excitement of play, achieving a high score, or reaching a record time.  Most importantly, the reward system produces sensations of joy and fun, assigning an emotional value to the ExerGaming® experience.  When, later, the same stimulus reappears, our memory motivates and directs us to seek out a plan of reengaging in that activity.  Finally, the cortex (executive function) commands action to the problem-solving inherent in some of the games themselves and integrates our attention with short- and long-term goals, including: this is good for my heart, exercise helps improve my ability to learn, and I am working at living a healthy life style free of the conditions that undermine my health.  This has my attention!

How can the arousal system be activated when a student experiences their 8th year of basketball skills, and they don’t like basketball?  In traditional physical education programs, where the same sports and classes are taught year after year, there is a reason why many students are bored in PE.  Too often these physical education programs reduce motivation because of the emphasis on a sports- and skills-model that doesn’t effectively reach all students.  (Only 3% of adults over 24 keep fit using team sports.) In fact, when students are forced into activities they don’t enjoy, it actually causes more stress and an ambivalence to participate.  One reason why that is important is because voluntary participation does more good than forced activity, which may cause an overproduction of cortisol, creating, in turn, more stress and lessening motivation to participate. In order to stimulate the attention system, PE programs must offer a variety of choices that will attract and maintain student interest.  Phil Lawler, often recognized as the Father of the New PE, long advocated that students are more likely to engage in tasks when they are afforded realistic choices.  Lawler and his team of PE teachers from Naperville, Illinois, skillfully blended a physical activity requirement with options so that all kids would be motivated and successful. As a result, the Naperville model keeps the attention system activated so a student’s interest is more likely to be maintained over time.  Another example of Naperville’s effectiveness is captured in their student profile data:  their obesity rate is consistently less than 5%.

For all the good strategies the experts recommend, anytime you make the experience fun, you have tapped into one of the most significant motivational strategies.  Fun and enjoyment gives students the energy and commitment to consistently work out on their own.  I have observed that first hand.   Following Naperville’s lead, my former school implemented a 25 station ExerGaming® lab.  There is a novelty and reward component to ExerGaming® that truly draws students’ interest and motivation in a way I had never seen before.  When I have observed the collective effect of other recommendations to encourage fitness, not one has had a more significant impact than ExerGaming®.  With no other strategy have I seen kids scream with excitement to exercise than when they have time in the ExerGaming® lab.

“Kids work hardest at play,” is the motto of Makoto, a leading ExerGaming® developer.  They have it right, and ExerGaming® pioneers have it right, too.  If we are going to make a difference with our youth, we need to reach them in a way that interests them, that catches their attention, and, ultimately, motivates them toward their life-long goals of fitness and health.

A User’s Guide to the Brain.  John J. Ratey, M.D.  Vintage Books, New York, 2001.



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