If we’re listening to the experts, all the evidence points to the importance of increasing physical education/physical activity (PE/PA) in our schools. A compelling body of research shows that, as fitness increases, achievement increases, behavior issues decrease, and wellness increases. Utilizing this research is one of the most compelling reasons for school administrators to use budget funds to increase PE /PA or to add new technology (ExerGaming®) to energize their programs.
Research shows that physical activity actually enhances our brain’s capacity to learn. Education, however, is pressured to move in the opposite direction – one where kids are asked to sit in their chairs six hours a day, receive PE once a week, and have fewer recesses – all to improve student achievement. Exercise, however, improves all aspects of executive functioning (problem solving, sequencing, planning, cause/effect, predicting consequences, etc.). Dr. John Medina, a well-known brain researcher, says it well: “Exercise is cognitive candy for the brain” and “If you wanted to create an educational environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like a classroom.”
What’s impressive is that exercise offers yet another side benefit that impacts every school and every classroom: it improves behavior by increasing attention, decreasing impulsivity, and creating a more receptive state of mind for learning. When the behavior of a classroom improves, the learning opportunities for everyone are enhanced. There are fewer interruptions, less acting out, and more time for the instructor to teach. A North Carolina study showed that even 10 minutes of aerobic exercise before instruction increased time-on task by an average of 8%, with the least on-task students improving by 20%.
In addition, if we are truly interested in educating the whole child, as well as preparing them for the 21st century, we have to come to grips with the fact that the fitness levels of our youth are falling while associated health issues are increasing. Obesity and type 2 diabetes are at crisis-levels in our young people. Ignoring the fact that sedentary life styles have lead to significant health problems will lead to an unacceptable quality of life for our children and an even greater national health care crisis because of the cost of these items – in terms of both dollar and disabled manpower resources.
If we’ll listen, the brain researchers have much to tell us that will improve how we educate our students. John Ratey, M.D., professor at Harvard Medical School and author, calls exercise the “Miracle Gro®” of the brain and cites the preponderance of evidence supporting exercise to improve behavior. Dr. Chuck Hillman, of the University of Illinois, regularly publishes research showing the association of exercise with improved memory and the ability to learn. Dr. John Medina, of Seattle Pacific University, devotes the first chapter of his book, Brain Rules, to how exercise improves brain power. He says that brain researchers and educators need to start collaborating with each other to utilize the brain science and educational research in how we educate our children.
Unfortunately, many school administrators have come to believe – fueled by high stakes testing – that academic proficiency alone trumps everything – and is the singular lens through which many administrators continue to look at education. The good news is that increased PE/PA does not detract from but actually enhances the schools’ academic goals and, at the same time, develops healthy habits for life-long success.
If you want an example of where this works – where fitness and high academic achievement are achieved through a model that others can follow, consider Naperville School District 203 in Illinois. In this district, “New PE” is a daily part of the students’ education. (The New PE has a significant focus on student fitness instead of the traditional sports model.) In Naperville the obesity rate is consistently less than 5% and academic achievement is high. In 1999, the 8th graders did something very unusual by taking the TIMSS (The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) as a nation and scored #1 in science and #6 in math – in the world! In the most recent international data comparing student achievement, American students were 25th in mathematics. Naperville has learned how to optimize the research around exercise and learning to the benefit of its students.
More good news is that Naperville and other school districts have recently been integrating a new technology into their instruction to enhance the quality of their physical education programs: ExerGaming®. Students are already hooked on technology and capitalizing on this interest motivates them to exercise and get fit. ExerGaming® brings an excitement to the student body because the format is so incredibly fun. Students work hard and don’t even realize the effort they are making. When I put an Exercise4Learning™ lab in my school, the students were ecstatic with this new experience of ExerGaming®. In 30 years as a principal, I have never seen anything motivate kids to exercise like ExerGaming® does in our lab. Anyone interested in giving a huge spark to their physical education program and their effort to improve childhood fitness would be thrilled with the power that ExerGaming® will provide. You will quickly find that your kids will not want to get off the equipment. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful problem?!
Parents need to stand up for what we know is best for kids – movement, exercise, and improving learning are inextricably linked. Given all the evidence, increasing PE/PA along with integrating the new technology (ExerGaming®) needs to be a high priority of all communities.
How can anyone in education ignore the research and not be driven to increase PE/PA and take responsibility for the fitness of our youth? The adults know what they are doing, don’t they?
DAN LAWLER Ph.D
Motion Fitness Advisory Board Member