Posted by: terrencedoyle | February 10, 2015

Blog # 2 Aerobic Exercise Enhances Learning. What are Schools Waiting For?

Blog # 2 by Terry Doyle
Aerobic Exercise Enhances Learning—What are Schools Waiting for?

What’s inexpensive, takes only 30 minutes a day, can be done inside or outside, can be done by people of all ages, improves the brain’s ability to pay attention, extends concentration, improves mood and memory and makes learning new things easier? Did you guess exercise? If so, you are one hundred percent correct!
Dr. Laura Carstensen the Director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity says rarely do neuroscientist, psychologist and physicians unequivocally agree on anything but they do agree that exercise is the best thing you can do for your brain. Harvard Psychiatrist John Ratey in his 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain writes, “Exercise is the single most important thing a person can do to improve their learning.” The reasons are that exercise (and here I am talking about exercise that gets you to raise your heart rate, break a sweat and lasts at least 30 minutes) causes the brain to release greater amounts of three important neurochemicals: noradrenalin, dopamine and serotonin. These three neurochemicals improve several brain functions that are vital to new learning. The first function they improve is the brain’s ability to pay attention, which is the cornerstone of learning. The brain only learns what it pays attention to and when it comes to new learning, it can only pay attention to one thing at a time. The second function they improve is the brain’s ability to concentrate which results in a person being able to stay on task for longer periods of time. Third, these neurochemicals improve a person’s mood and motivation for new learning.
In addition, and perhaps even more exciting, exercise causes the brain to make more of a protein called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which stimulates the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and learning, and actually makes it easier for neurons to wire and fire which is the basis of new learning. John Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the Brain.”
BDNF also repairs damage done to brain cells by long term stress and strengthens the synaptic connection between neurons, which is the basis for long term memory creation. According to Psychologist Jesper Mogensen of the University of Copenhagen, studies show that exercise can actually reverse the damage done to brain cells by long term stress. Mogensen says, “The brain responds like muscles do, growing with use and withering with inactivity. Exercise causes neurons (dendrites) to grow and bloom, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”
If all of these benefits were not enough, a 2012 study by J. Mark Davis and colleagues at the University of South Carolina found that exercise increases the number of “master regulator mitochondria” brought online by the brain which results in an increase in the brain’s energy supply which in turn allows the brain to work faster and more efficiently.
All of these exciting new findings bring with them new hope for improved learning at all levels of schooling, as well as the potential for protecting the aging brain from various maladies.
A New Responsibility
I purpose that these findings also bring a new level of responsibility for schools. With clear evidence that students who exercise are optimizing their brains for learning (provided they get enough sleep, eat well and drink enough water to keep their brains hydrated), I am arguing that not having aerobic exercise as a daily part of America’s school curriculum boarders on malfeasance?
In all areas of professional practice when new evidence is discovered that overturns previously held beliefs, practitioners are obligated to implement the new protocols or use the new medicine. Should this not be true of education as well? Should schools, knowing that exercise can optimize their students’ brains for learning, not be asked to accept this responsibility to provide their students with daily aerobic exercise?
These findings about exercise, as well as the findings about the influence sleep and school start time have on learning and memory (which are just as robust, by the way), suggest the addition of aerobic exercise to our schools is not an “interesting idea to explore” but a crucial need to be met. The American media and politicians across the country constantly cry out for education reform. Well here is a relatively inexpensive reform where the infrastructure is already in place with overwhelming evidence of its ability to improve students’ learning. I suggest we quit talking about reform and implement a research based reform that will immediately begin to pay learning dividends.

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