We already know that exercise is beneficial in many ways. It decreases the risk of obesity, strengthens the immune system, boosts self-esteem and increases the production of endorphins, which create a more positive mood.
These reasons alone justify the need for daily exercise and movement. However, parents and teachers have another reason they should get kids up and moving: Exercise helps all types of students become better learners. The part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning. And when learning is connected to a kinesthetic experience, information is easier to recall, which is why students should be consistently encouraged to get up and move.
- encourage a daily high-intensity workout, particularly before rigorous classes
- incorporate movement breaks or movement during classroom instruction
- perform cross-lateral movements before reading or writing tests
- allow breaks from technology
- forget the importance of sleep
- always do the exact same workout
- assume exercise will be life-changing overnight
- underestimate your role as a movement advocate
Students who incorporate high-intensity exercise into their daily schedule will naturally become more motivated and experience more energy and alertness during class. The majority of students who participate in a morning weights and fitness class rely on their post-workout “high” to get them through their day. Many say that without it, they would fall asleep during class. Cardiovascular exercise, in which students reach their maximum target heart rate, produces the best results.
Nearly half of all students are kinesthetic learners. If they are sitting in a lecture, their brains naturally start to fizzle out or drift away after about 10 to 15 minutes of auditory information. It is important for teachers to get kids up and moving and/or change modalities often.
Many teachers call these “brain breaks,” and they may include stretching, team-building activities or may even be intentional movements regarding subject matter. Teachers with little time to cover curriculum can think of it this way: Taking 2 to 5 minutes to do a kinesthetic activity can buy another 20 to 30 minutes of student focus. It is worth taking the time to do.
Another option for teachers is to incorporate movement directly into their lessons. Research shows that students who are moving while learning can recall the information easier at a later time. There are a number of resources to guide teachers in this process. Examples include “Smart Moves,” by Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. and “Brain Gym,” by Paul E. Dennison.
Cross-lateral movements send messages from one side of the brain to the other, strengthening the nerve-cell pathways that link both sides of the brain through the corpus callosum. The brain uses these same pathways for tracking words across a page.
Cross-lateral movements include any movement that is performed across the body, such as touching your right hand to your left toes or left shoulder, or left elbow to right knee. Additionally, these movements energize any tired student, so be sure to try them while working on homework.
We know that technology stimulates our amygdalas–a small part of the limbic system in charge of fear and pleasure responses. With most humans spending about 7 hours per day using technology, the amygdala becomes overstimulated.
It is vital to take breaks from technology for the brain’s sake. Taking a walk, jog or bike ride can calm the brain and rejuvenate the amygdala. When students complain of “technology” headaches, running the headache out of their system can be quite helpful.
Sacrificing sleep for morning workouts or late night homework will have negative results. Most adults need at least 8 hours of sleep per night, while kids age 16 and under need even more. Without proper sleep, exercising before sitting in a learning environment can contribute to a sleepy, fatigued learner, rather than an alert and focused one. It is not uncommon for students (elementary included) to attend school tired, claiming they did not get enough sleep. Because insomnia and stress have extremely damaging effects on the brain, it is crucial to make sleep a priority for kids and model it ourselves.
Having a pattern is a great thing for some. However, mixing up your workout or the type of exercise completed is better for the body. A variety of fitness activities works different muscles in the body and stimulates the brain in different areas. Students should be creative and experiment with unique types of exercise to see which works best to energize them for class and/or testing.
There is a type of movement or sport that will suit each person, even the most unathletic student. Particularly for students with ADHD, a variety of fitness choices have shown beneficial results, creating a calmer and happier student. John Ratey’s book, “Spark,” explains the research behind this suggestion.
Often, after an intense workout, fatigue and/or soreness occurs, particularly the next day. Your students may complain about feeling tired and sore. Similar to practicing an instrument, they will get better at the process. The body is extremely resilient and will adapt to challenging exercise. Once muscles begin to strengthen, the movements won’t hurt. Workouts will eventually start to feel good, and the student might even look forward to the process.
In actuality, it is the brain that feels good during and after the process because of the release of hormones. For some students, it will take time and discipline to begin a consistent exercise program. Choose movements that are fun and easy for them in the beginning and progress slowly. Encourage movement throughout the day, rather than just at one dreaded time. Create a reward system. Doing exercise along with students is a huge motivation for them. You will see results both physically and mentally over time.
Kids will do as their parents do. If parents and teachers are active and value physical fitness, so will their kids. It is important to show interest in maintaining a healthy body and teaching kids the specifics about why they should adopt this lifelong philosophy.
Support your school’s physical education program. Valuable lessons are taught in PE beyond learning to move the body, such as working cooperatively with others and building self-esteem in social settings, which so many students lack.
Participate in family fitness events in your community and encourage students to participate in individual or team sports. Watch the Olympic Games as a family and let the stories of perseverance model greatness for your young athletes. Limit technology and take the time to let kids play outside. Even a simple task is very important for their brains.
We can look at movement benefitting our body and brain in two separate ways: By completing a high-intensity daily workout and by incorporating movement breaks into our sedentary work or school schedule.
When thinking about beginning an exercise regimen, it is helpful to use the FITT principle. Frequency is how often the workout is completed (the recommendation is daily), Intensity is how hard the workout is, Time is how long the workout is (30 to 60 minutes is recommended) and Type is the type of activity completed. Making the workout a habit and a natural part of the day is key. The brain will experience changes within the first couple of weeks, resulting in a more alert and less-stressed body. Additionally, the “feel-good” hormones will be released daily post-exercise, which makes for a happier and more productive attitude.