“There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and cubicle.” – Dr. John Medina
Every day around 2:00 Jimmy’s level of energy dropped. At that point in the day, he had been sitting in classes for about 6 hours. He became anxious and for some reason couldn’t think very well in his last class of the day.
It gets worse…
Jimmy’s last class of the day happened to be calculus. Calculus was his most difficult class and he was falling way behind. He grew antsy and felt that he wanted to get up and move around, but the teachers wouldn’t let him. As the semester came to a close, Jimmy needed to bring his grade up, but his afternoon brain fog continued and he didn’t know what to do. Why did this happen to Jimmy?
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Roaming the Plain
Our brains formed in an environment where we had to constantly move from place to place to find food and shelter. Up until about 12,000 years ago, all humans on earth were hunter-gatherers.
Humans were not stationary for very long and if they were, they still had to be ready to move if predators took them by siege. Their first instinct was survival and if you sat too long, you probably weren’t going to survive.
This is what is wrong with most classrooms…
We ask our students to sit all day without movement and this puts them in a serious disadvantage when it comes to learning. Moving, stretching, and walking enhance the learning process in the brain.
Students cannot sit still for very long before the blood and oxygen flow to their brains significantly slows down, thereby slowing down the learning process. Movement and exercise increase spatial awareness and fluidity of intelligence.
Think about hunting a wooly mammoth…
You have to think on the move. There are times when you may stay stationary, but when you do, you know it is imperative to pay attention. If you don’t pay attention, you won’t eat.
Incorporating movement into your lessons and school day will significantly increase the amount of potential for learning that will take place.
Here’s what sitting all day will do…
The Seat of Death
Evidence has surfaced that not only will sitting too long be bad for your skeletal and organ health, but also bad for your mental health.
Prolonged sitting has been known to cause: heart disease, colon cancer, mushy abs, poor circulation in legs, and soft bones.
Mentally, sitting too long it is known to slow down your cognition and thinking:
“Moving muscles pump fresh blood and oxygen through the brain and trigger the release of all sorts of brain- and mood-enhancing chemicals. When we are sedentary for a long time, everything slows, including brain function.”[ii]
Furthermore, prolonged sitting can also lead to depression and other mental health disorders. However, there is some good news.
What if we reversed the trend in schools on exercise?
Research now provides us evidence that exercise promotes a process now known as neurogenesis, i.e. your brain’s ability to adapt and grow new brain cells, regardless of your age.
Exercise stimulates a protein that stimulates the growth of nerves and synapses. It also aids in preserving existing brain cells.
“Research has discovered that exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5… Over time, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turns stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses… and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells.”[iii]
Exercise protects existing brain cells and helps stimulate the growth of new brain cells. It should not come as any surprise if you understand the environment in which the human brain formed.
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We Literally Think Better On Our Feet…
In 2015, researchers from Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, found that students with standing desks are more attentive than their seated counterparts.
In fact, results indicate that students were 12% more engaged and on –task in classrooms with standing desks.
“Engagement was measured by on-task behaviors such as answering a question, raising a hand or participating in active discussion and off-task behaviors like talking out of turn.”[iv]
Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE, associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, who is an ergonomic engineer by trade was the lead researcher on the team. His previous studies have shown that standing desks can also help reduce obesity.
Students at standing desks burn 15% more calories and up to 25% if the students are obese.
His conclusion was that…
“Standing workstations reduce disruptive behavior problems and increase students’ attention or academic behavioral engagement by providing students with a different method for completing academic tasks (like standing) that breaks up the monotony of seated work… research indicates that engagement is the most important contributor to student achievement. Simply put, we think better on our feet than in our seat.”[v]
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Exercise Increases Oxygen to the Brain
Exercise is critical for the brain to function correctly. Your brain needs oxygen and exercise allows the heart to pump more oxygen to the brain. An increase in oxygen supply to the brain is always followed by increased mental clarity. Therefore, our cognitive ability is literally tied with our physical fitness.[vi] Exercise increases blood flow to the region of the brain involved in making memory (the hippocampus).
Exercise will help students remember more.[vii] The activation of the hippocampus during the encoding process (when the memory is being made) is very important to being able to recall the information later.[viii]
Exercise Releases Thinking Chemicals
Exercise releases chemicals in the brain. The very same chemicals that assist thinking, focus, learning and memory (noradrenaline, dopamine and cortisol) level up during and after exercise. [ix] “Exercise gets blood to your brain, bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up the toxic electrons that are left over. It also stimulates the protein that keeps neurons connecting.”[x] Connection is important because memories are made up of vast webs of data from across the brain and are all linked together.[xi]
Leads to Greater Creativity
Often during creative tasks, people get stuck. One such example of this is what is known as “writer’s block.” A cure for this may be to have students walk. A study out of Stanford in 2014 had participants walk or sit and attempt to perform creative tasks.
In their experiment, walking increased creative output by about 60% and the creative boost still remained after the participants who had been walking sat down to perform creative tasks.[xiv]
These experiments were done both on a treadmill and walking outside. While walking outside had the greatest effect on creativity, walking in both circumstances still led to a higher creative output than sitting. Walking before creative tasks seems to be a very easy to implement solution for teachers.
As the lead author of the study states,
“we already know that physical activity is important and sitting too often is unhealthy. This study is another justification for integrating bouts of physical activity into the day, whether it’s recess at school or turning a meeting at work into a walking one.”[xv]
CLOSE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP
In 2014, Michele Tine, head of the Poverty and Learning Lab at Dartmouth College, discovered that 12 minutes of aerobic exercise increased reading comprehension scores of low income students. Tine had groups of low-income and high-income students take a reading comprehension pretest. She then split them into two groups. She had one group of students jog in place for 12 minutes, while the control group watched a video on the benefits of exercise. She then retested the students immediately and then again after a 45 minute silent reading period. The results were astonishing!
According to Tine, “exercising at an aerobic level for 12-min did improve the SVA of the low- and high-income adolescents in the experimental group. The SVA improvement among the low-income adolescents was particularly large, evidenced by the effect size of 0.829. An effect size of this magnitude suggests that the SVA improvement experienced among the low-income adolescents has veritable practical significance.”
Tine concluded that,
“As expected, an income gap in reading comprehension was present within the control group; the low-income adolescents obtained a mean score of 73%, … lower than high-income adolescents’ mean score of 87%. Yet, there was no income gap in reading comprehension in the experimental group. The low-income adolescents who engaged in a 12-min session of aerobic exercise had reading comprehension scores comparable to their high-income counterparts, with both groups obtaining mean reading comprehension scores of approximately 90%.”
12 minutes of exercise was enough to close the achievement gap, which has been a well documented problem between higher and lower income students.
Exercise Increases Vocabulary
In 2007, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20 % faster following exercise than they did before exercise.[xvii]
Increases Bloodflow to Memory and Learning Centers
After just three months of exercise, the part of the brain (hippocampus) that focuses on memory and learning had a 30% increase in blood flow. “In his study, Small put a group of volunteers on a three-month exercise regimen and then took pictures of their brains… What he saw was that the capillary volume in the memory area of the hippocampus increased by 30 percent, a truly remarkable change.”[xviii]
Even 10 Minutes Helps
A 2015 study out of Iowa State University confirmed that short bursts of physical activity led to boosts in cognitive abilities.[xix]
These activities included crab-walking and skipping around in circles. While the students were engaged in these activities, they answered math problems. (Read More Here)
The Bottom Line: Exercise Increases Academic Performance
Free recall memory was significantly increased when studies compared students who exercised and those that did not.[xx]
Exercise both builds increasing mental capacity over time as well as after one session of exercise.
“Immediately after just one session of physical activity, children can increase their attention and memory, and reduce inappropriate behavior, such as being unfocused and causing others to become distracted.”[xxi]
Memory, attention, focus, and a reduction in inappropriate behavior are all factors that would be difficult to argue against being crucial for becoming a good student.
Physical activity increases the health of the brain…
“Brain processes such as directing one’s attention, switching attention between tasks, and moving information from short- to long-term memory are necessary actions for learning. Recently, scientists have been examining the underlying brain functions that may explain some of the immediate and more gradual academic benefits of physical activity.”[xxii]
The brain functions that are enhanced by exercise are two regions of the brain.
First, physically fit children have larger hippocampal volume. The hippocampus plays a significant role in coding information in memory to be used later.[xxiii]
Second, physically fit children have a larger basal ganglia, than those who are not active. The basal ganglia has roles in both cognition and emotional regulation in humans.[xxiv]
All these effects add up. We may have underestimated the Jocks in high school. They were probably smarter than we gave them credit for then.
[i] Carrier, David, R.“The Energetic Paradox of Human Running and Hominid Evolution”. Current Anthropology, Vol.25, № 4, August–October 1984
[ii] The health hazards of sitting. (2014, January 20). Retrieved March 9, 2015, from http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/national/the-health-hazards-of-sitting/750/
[iii] DiSalvo, D. (2013, October 13). How Exercise Makes Your Brain Grow. Retrieved March 9, 2015, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2013/10/13/how-exercise-makes-your-brain-grow/
[iv] Marianela Dornhecker, Jamilia J. Blake, Mark Benden, Hongwei Zhao, Monica Wendel. The effect of stand-biased desks on academic engagement: an exploratory study. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1080/14635240.2015.1029641
[v] Marianela Dornhecker, Jamilia J. Blake, Mark Benden, Hongwei Zhao, Monica Wendel. The effect of stand-biased desks on academic engagement: an exploratory study. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1080/14635240.2015.1029641
[vi]10 Most Effective Tips For Using Brain-Based Teaching & Learning. (2014, March 10). Retrieved November 26, 2014, from http://www.brainbasedlearning.net/10-most-effective-tips-for-using-brain-based-teaching-learning/
[vii] Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school (p. 22). Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
[viii] Davachi, L. & Wagner, A. D. (2002). Hippocampal contributions to episodic encoding: insights from relational
and item-based learning. The American Physiological Society, 88, 982-990.
[ix]10 Most Effective Tips For Using Brain-Based Teaching & Learning. (2014, March 10). Retrieved November 26, 2014, from http://www.brainbasedlearning.net/10-most-effective-tips-for-using-brain-based-teaching-learning/
[x] Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school (p. 22). Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
[xi] Davachi, L., & Dobbins, I. (2008). Declarative Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 112-118.
[xii] Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
[xiii] Bergland, C. (2008). The athlete’s way: Training your mind and body to experience the joy of exercise (pp. 97-98). New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
[xiv] Oppezzo, M., Schwartz, D.(2014). Give your Ideas some legs: The positive effects of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 40(4), 1142-1152.
[xv] Wong, M. (2014, April 24). Stanford study finds walking improves creativity. Retrieved January 25, 2015, from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/april/walking-vs-sitting-042414.html
[xvi] Michele Tine. Acute aerobic exercise: an intervention for the selective visual attention and reading comprehension of low-income adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5
[xvii] Ratey, J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown.
[xviii] Ratey, J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown.
[xix] Iowa State study: Ten minutes of physical activity can improve kids’ learning. (2015, February 2). Retrieved February 18, 2015, from http://www.hs.iastate.edu/news/2015/02/02/physical-activity-and-learning/
[xx] Pesce, C., Crova, C., Cereatti, L., Casella, R., & Bellucci, M. (2009). Physical Activity And Mental Performance In Preadolescents: Effects Of Acute Exercise On Free-recall Memory. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 2(1), 16-22.
[xxi] Active Education: Growing Evidence on Physical Activity and Academic Performance. (2015, January 1). Retrieved February 21, 2015, from http://activelivingresearch.org/ActiveEducationBrief
[xxii] Active Education: Growing Evidence on Physical Activity and Academic Performance. (2015, January 1). Retrieved February 21, 2015, from http://activelivingresearch.org/ActiveEducationBrief
[xxiii] Chaddock L, Erickson KI, Prakash RS, et al. A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume, and memory performance in preadolescent children. Brain Res. 2010;1358:172-183. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2010.08.049.
[xxiv] Stocco, Andrea; Lebiere, Christian; Anderson, John R. (2010). “Conditional Routing of Information to the Cortex: A Model of the Basal Ganglia’s Role in Cognitive Coordination”. Psychological Review 117 (2): 541–74.