Give your Brain a Workout! How Physical Activity in the Classroom Builds Stronger Learners | ExpandED Schools
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Give your Brain a Workout! How Physical Activity in the Classroom Builds Stronger Learners

Natasha Chaku

Physical activity has long been associated with healthy development, but most youth do not meet the national physical activity guidelines. The increase in sedentary behavior is paralleled by a rise in child and adolescent obesity rates and increased risk for diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease in adulthood. Importantly, physical activity is also essential for healthy brain development and better cognitive control as reported previously on this very blog! Although the NYC Department of Education requires Physical Education (PE) as part of their educational programming – and has implemented PE Works to revitalize how educators teach PE classes – research suggests that physical education classes continue to disappear in favor of more academic time.

Dr. Hillman, a professor of Kinesiology at Northeastern’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, studies how physical activity and physical fitness is related to healthy brain development and academic achievement in childhood and adolescence. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Hillman who remarked, “There is no evidence to support that time spent being physically active detracts from academic achievement. As such, isn't it the school's job to promote health, in the same way that they should promote cultural, societal, and interpersonal skills to best prepare children for lifelong success?”

New research suggests that Dr. Hillman is right. In fact, incorporating physical activity into class:

  • Increases brain activation. Recent studies have shown that children think better when they are on the move. Dr. Hillman found that treadmill walking for 20 minutes increased brain activation levels as measured by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRIs) and increased performance on reading and math tests. Even short exercise breaks can increase blood oxygenation levels in the brain which in turn, will increase brain metabolism and enhance the delivery of oxygen to neural tissue in the frontal lobes, critical areas of brain development in youth.
  • Increases executive functioning. The frontal lobes are heavily implicated in the development of executive functioning, a set of cognitive processes involved in decision-making and goal-setting behaviors and highly correlated with academic success and future life satisfaction. Research has shown that short, classroom-based physical activity breaks improve executive functioning skills as shown by increased activation of the frontal lobes and by better performance on tasks measuring executive functioning such as processing speed, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. 

  • Increases academic achievement and on-task behavior. Finally, classroom-based physical activity breaks improve school performance. Research suggests that movement and physically active lessons increase attention, retention of academic material and decrease disruptive behavior. It has been found that incorporating physical activity into daily academic lessons not only increased academic achievement in comparison to controls but also increased cardiovascular fitness and lowered reported BMI over the course of a year. That sounds like a win to me!

This research demonstrates that schools can include more physical activity in classrooms without losing academic time and suggests that physical activity should be an essential component of all school experiences. Check out classroom resources such Neuroscience for Teachers or GoNoodle to learn more!

Natasha Chaku is as an intern at ExpandED Schools and a PhD. candidate at Fordham University. Chaku’s current research focuses on a study of Department of Education data and connections between physical fitness and academic achievement.
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