The science of it: It’s no secret that physical exercise can keep you healthy. However, we often overlook the benefits that it can have for our brains. A slew of research has connected exercise to improved mental function. For instance, scientists have “found that physical activity improves the microstructures of white matter in the brain. White matter integrity is linked to faster neural conduction between brain regions and superior cognitive performance.”* Ok, enough science. How can physical activity boost our youngsters’ minds? In layman’s terms, it can improve memory, concentration and attention span, not to mention yield better results on achievement tests. Physical activity positively impacts young peoples’ physiological, academic, social, and emotional health, directly affecting:
- HDL cholesterol
- Blood pressure
- Insulin resistance
- Skeletal health
- Musculoskeletal injuries
- Psychological well-being
- Anxiety and depression
Bringing back recess: Remember the days of recess? In many schools, this unstructured “playtime” is a thing of the past, deemed detrimental to student attention when they return to the classroom afterwards. But according to Phillip Tomporowski, professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia, rather than making kids rowdy and fidgety, recess can actually send students “back to class less boisterous, more attentive, and better behaved compared with kids who have been sitting in chairs for hours on end.”** Further research also showed that following 20 minutes of moderate exercise, students gave more accurate answers on standardized tests. In my own tutoring career, I have had many students tell me that going for a jog or doing a light workout before taking the SAT or ACT provided a more positive experience while taking the test and, quite often, improved results. Blogger Vanessa Richardson put it nicely: “Forget the term ‘dumb jocks.’ According to the latest research, that’s an oxymoron.”
RIP, PE: Unfortunately, the opportunity to exercise is not necessarily something provided by schools. In fact, many schools have cut back on physical education (PE) requirements. Illinois is the only state that actually mandates daily PE for all students. So without it being a part of a student’s school schedule, exercise is something we should stress the importance of and help young people to make a daily practice. We can do this in a number of ways:
-Modeling: Being a good role model is a no-brainer, and something we all strive to do when it comes to our children and students. Most of us, however, whether we admit it or not, sometimes default to the old “do it because I said so” mantra. I don’t have a scientific study on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s the quickest and easiest way to get a young person to not do something. The better we model the behavior, the better chance that the young people in our lives will pick up on it and see it as the norm.
-A Family Affair: Speaking of modeling, an easy and fun way to incorporate exercise into a child’s life is to make it a family activity. Go hiking together, walk the dog, rent a kayak, go skiing, play tag or hide-and-go-seek, go for a family bike ride, etc. You can find more great family exercise ideas here:
And for when the weather’s uncooperative, see these ideas:
-Get Moving: Ok, you’re done reading, now go find those sneakers and get moving. It’ll make you and your family happier, healthier, and smarter.
Written by Phil Lane
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