Get your children moving: The educational benefits of regular exercise
Everyone knows the many benefits of exercise, and all children hope to grow up “big and strong.” When your child exercises, he builds muscle, reduces stress, and prevents many serious health problems, helping him to grow into a healthy adult. But, did you know that exercise improves brain health and can enhance your child’s performance in the classroom? Although it is always necessary to “hit the books” to do well in school, it is just as important to “hit the gym.” Here’s why:
- “Fuels” Brain Activity: When children get their hearts pumping, their brains receive oxygen and nutrients from their circulatory system that they need to perform at max efficiency, accuracy, and capacity. Think of exercise as feeding the brain everything it needs to power and direct all its activities. And what better way to help your child succeed than to feed their brain a balanced breakfast?
- Helps Brain Cells Grow and Change: Cardiovascular exercise also aids the body’s release of many hormones and neurochemicals, all of which provide a nourishing environment for the growth of new brain cells. A recent study conducted at the University of Adelaide concluded that even one 30-minute session of vigorous exercise can cause changes in the brain that make it more “plastic,” including improvements in memory and motor skill coordination. When the brain becomes more plastic, your child is better able to adapt to, digest, and manage new ideas, activities, and rules in the classroom.
- Trains Muscle Memory and Working Memory: Some neurochemicals enhance functions such as working memory, problem solving, and decision making. Specifically, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, plays a role in both physical and cognitive learning. John J. Ratey, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, uses the analogy that “BDNF is like fertilizer for the brain…Without it, our brains can’t take in new information or make new cells.” And–while BDNF fertilizes the brain–the repetitive motion of cardio movement trains muscle memory, allowing the brain to practice receiving, interpreting, and memorizing stimulus as patterned motion.
- Improves Verbal Memory and Learning: A study conducted by the University of British Columbia found that exercising also boosts the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Dr. Thomas Crook, a clinical psychologist and memory researcher, agrees that, “Cardiovascular health is more important than any other single factor in preserving and improving learning and memory,” largely because of its effects on the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
- Heals and Protects Brain Cells: Moreover, Heidi Godman, Executive Editor of the Harvard Health Letter, notes that, “The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.” This means that exercising not only increases the brain’s ability to develop new cells and critical thinking skills, but also preserves and protects those skills for the future.
- Boosts Mood and Motivation: Exercise also releases several mood-regulating neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Together, these chemicals haveantidepressant-like effects, which boost mood and reduce the prevalence of stress hormones. Serotonin almost exclusively addresses mood, while dopamine and norepinephrine also affect learning, attention, perception, motivation, and arousal, which enable crucial executive functions used daily in the classroom. John J. Ratey notes that, “By elevating neurotransmitters in the brain, it helps us focus, feel better, and release tension.”
In short, when your child is working out their heart, they are also working out their brain. Scheduling 20-30 minutes of exercise a few times a week can fuel, train, protect, and build brain cells that are critical to neural development. And, when the brain achieves optimal conditions for learning and growing, children can master increasingly more advanced critical thinking skills and executive functions. With enough exercise, your children will feel better, perform better, and achieve more than they imagined.