Exercise and the Brain
By Jonathan Jefferson
“SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey, MD is the one book that all educators must read to fully understand the inseparable connection between exercise and the brain’s ability to acquire knowledge. Long before this well structured, research-based book was released in 2008, I had admonished my colleagues that it was a misnomer to equate academic learning and exercise as two separate spheres if for no other reason than that the brain can only receive nourishment through movement. Movement increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain priming it for the development of new neuron-passage ways. Recent studies have also shown that coordinated movement (e.g. dance, martial arts, & yoga) are the most effective “steroids” for the brain.
Why is this topic important? Far too often we find well-intentioned educators unwittingly act on assumptions which are too detached from prevailing research to be anything but ineffectual. Having students engage in physical activity before classes and exams is much more beneficial than having them sit quietly and read. However, the “control freaks” contingency of educators are disinclined to relinquish their illusion of control, which ultimately contributes to the detriment of student performance. Let us truly put kids first and embrace the maxim of doing what is best for them; not what is most convenient for the adults.
Dr. Ratey thoroughly shared the success of Naperville Illinois’ school district in his book. This district is lead by their physical education and wellness program. On the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Naperville’s eighth graders placed sixth in the world in math and first in science. He also reported that in Naperville students are deliberately scheduled for their most difficult classes following physical education class. This is done to take advantage of their brain’s readiness to learn at that time. Imagine that; a striving school district actually applying proven research to a successful end.
I am not surprised that “SPARK” is a best seller. The research shared explains the benefits of exercise on stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, hormonal changes, aging, and learning. There is something for everyone, and acting on the research shared can improve the quality of life for many.
In addition to this fine work, another great read specific to movement and the brain is Math and Movement by Suzy Koontz.