Education: Mind and Body

by Sally Johnson Tiessen

The link between education and exercise has been vastly undervalued.

Brain researchers—in particular, Drs. John Ratey, Wendy Suzuki and Daniel Amen, to name just a few—study brain function as it relates to learning, traditional school settings and the future of our educational system. The link between brain and body function is their specialty, and over and over, their findings indicate a critical component of this partnership has been vastly undervalued: the link between education and exercise.

While exercise has long been considered by many to be a peripheral and expendable activity, compelling and substantiated research has emerged to prove this notion definitively false. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The movement of the body is a major factor in the proper functioning of the brain.

Sparking Student Success
In his book Spark, Dr. John Ratey details this mind-body connection, with research-based studies exploring the connections between behavioral disorders, ADHD, addiction, mood disorders, learning disabilities, anxiety disorders and stress. In addition, he presents the remarkable story of a Naperville, Illinois school district, which implemented a program of personalized, fitness-based physical education with the goal of teaching lifelong fitness skills to all participants.

It began before the start of each school day. Each student was evaluated, and personalized programs were developed. Each year more students participated, and the program involved scheduling the students’ hardest classes immediately after their workouts—a time when maximum academic effort was required. After several years of this successful and expanding program, the district achieved the distinction of placing first in the world in science and sixth in the world in math on a TIMMS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) test. The program is also credited with an 83-percent drop in discipline problems, as well as improvements in attitude, mood and cooperation among students.

Dr. Ratey contends that exercise has the primary job of improving our brains. Fitness turns us into better learners, improves our mental health as well as our physical health, and provides the best avenue for achieving student success.

Along with her colleagues, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscience researcher and professor at New York University, supports the ability of exercise to stimulate the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus. Her own research (including the integration of aerobic exercise in her lectures to students) supports marked increases in attention, mood, reaction time, imagination, creativity and memory. To create your “strongest brain possible,” according to Dr. Suzuki, exercise (and particularly aerobics) is essential.

The P.E. Emergency
Many teachers now employ creative ideas to increase movement and decrease restlessness among students. Some have eliminated desks, replacing them with “learning centers” that children (especially those in primary grades) are free to visit within the classroom. Some teachers employ innovative methods to release their students’ natural energy through open gyms, active learning, outdoor learning and a host of other activities that involve more than just sitting. However, dedicated physical education programs must be dramatically increased and required, nationwide, to begin to address this problem. (Only Illinois has any requirement at all for schools to provide P.E., and it is woefully inadequate).

This is no longer an option—it is an emergency. In 2014, the CDC reported an obesity rate for children of 17.2 percent; an additional 16.2 percent are considered overweight. In total, one third of U.S. children are dealing with issues of weight. (The numbers for adults in the same period are staggering: 37.9 percent are obese, and an additional 32 percent are considered overweight). In addition, behavioral, social and mental health issues are on the rise; teacher recruitment and retention are a challenge; and school budgets are strained.

We must bring enlightened brain research methods and practices into our classrooms, along with the reintroduction of formalized physical education. Our future depends upon our action.

The future of education lies not in teaching skills in isolation or creating separate distinctions, but in our recognition and acceptance of their relations to all aspects of personal growth. iBi

Sally Johnson Tiessen, BA, MA, CPT is a personal trainer and educational consultant with a master’s degree in secondary education.

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