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Cure Winter Doldrums with In-Class Exercise

Get Up and Move! A Little Exercise May Boost Learning

By Phil Nast, retired middle school teacher and freelance writer

The initial burst of energy following the winter break has run its course, and your students are feeling somewhat…unfocused. Who can blame them? Winter is here, the holidays are over, and a lot of tests stand between them and spring. How to snap them out of it and regain that learning momentum? Try exercise.

Exercise During Learning Time: Why Do It?

The health benefits of regular, moderate exercise have been extolled for decades, so it should not come as a surprise that exercise can also affect behavior and learning. A study from 2007 found that 40 minutes a day of exercise improved executive function in children. And a brisk, 10-minute walk has been shown to have a more lasting energizing effect than a cup of coffee.

John J. Ratey, an MD and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, makes the case for exercise and improved brain performance in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008). He describes how brain chemicals released during exercise, including serotonin and dopamine, help create an alert brain ready to learn, and argues that exercise is beneficial in moderating hormonal fluctuations, ADHD, stress, anxiety, mood, and in improving academic achievement.

Some schools are using these findings to their advantage. Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois, provides vigorous exercise before students take their most challenging classes, typically reading and math. Periods of academic work are punctuated by short “brain breaks” to refresh and refocus attention. Over a five-year period, reading and math scores improved significantly. (See Naperville’s Learning Readiness Physical Education Program.)

Regular exercise also has been shown to have a positive effect on behavior. Evidence suggests that exercise can help students with ADHD/ADD by elevating levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that allow children to evaluate the consequences of behavior. In this way, a student can make the best choices and suppress unacceptable social responses. For some, Ratey says, exercise alone may be all a student needs, though for most it will complement medication.

Exercise has also been known to reduce discipline problems. During the 2007-08 school year, the Charleston Progressive Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, started a program of before school activities that included basketball, “double Dutch” jump roping, and pogo stick jumping at stations in the gym. The result was a 95 percent decrease in discipline referrals before school, says Principal Wanda Wright-Sheats. She adds that teachers report students are more focused after exercise and middle schoolers who test immediately after morning activities perform better than those who test in the late morning or afternoon.

Getting students the exercise they need is becoming increasingly difficult, however. PE and recess time have been and continue to be cut in schools. The American Heart Association reports that only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education or an equivalent. And these cuts are being made at the same time the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recommended that children and adolescents get 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day. Regular PE time has to be supplemented, and in some districts, classroom teachers—as if they didn’t have enough to do—are required to meet district shortfalls.

Ideas for In-Classroom Exercise

So what can schools do? Molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (2008), John Medina suggests recess twice a day – aerobic exercise in the morning, strength building in the afternoon. He envisions individual classroom treadmills. Some schools, like Naperville, have exercise bikes or teach Tai Chi and Chi Kung. Another option is “Instant Recess” a series of short 10-minute exercise breaks that can be done in the classroom. 

In addition to regularly scheduled physical education classes, PE teacher Ed Kupiec reports that K-4 students at Enders Road Elementary School in Manlius, New York, supplement their daily dose of exercise by starting each day with stretches, calisthenics, in place aerobic exercises, and student designed exercises as well. PE Teachers lead students and teachers in the exercises using the school’s PA system. This is a great way to energize students who have been on a bus for 30 or more minutes. A plus to the approach is that all classrooms are engaged at the same time so that classes, especially those with open classrooms, don’t disturb each other.

Video games like Dance Dance Revolution or Just Dance are used once a week, Kupiec says, for students to get additional aerobic exercise. The games are also used at recess and before school to provide exercise beyond the state mandated requirement.

Teachers and students at Jack W. Harmon Elementary School in San Tan Valley, Arizona, are occasionally kept indoors on excessive heat days, but usually go outside to supplement PE. Until this year, classroom teachers were required to provide 45 minutes of physical activity each day, this year the requirement was reduced to 30 minutes. Students have 30 minutes of free play on the playground equipment, says Natalie Kinman, adding that some teachers continue to fit in another 15 minutes using exercises that don’t require equipment like jumping jacks, situps, pushups, and running in place.

Ellsworth Elementary, another school in the district, has a walking recess along with free recess. The walking recess is called Walkfit, and the principal walks the playground along with the students.

In the end, no two schools can provide the same opportunities. Flexibility and adaptation are necessary, as with everything else in education. But teachers willing to sacrifice a little seat time for exercise can earn big results for their students.

Additional Ideas

  1. The NEA Health Information Network has Move Healthy: lessons that stress the importance of getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

• The Michigan Department of Education has two collections of cross curricular activities called Brain Breaks: A Physical Activity Idea Book for Elementary Classroom Teachers. The activities require little or no equipment.

• Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina provides cross-curricular physical activities for middle schools students.

• JAM School Program. This program designed to teach kids (and adults) healthier habits. JAM is a free wellness resource for schools. Sign up is free.

• 10 Simple Activities to Encourage Physical Activity in the Classroom ( PDF, 37 KB, 1 pg.). This one page PDF has activities that can be adapted for all grades.

• In a co-authored paper, “Physically Active Play and Cognition” ( PDF, 73 KB, 10 pgs.) Ratey and Jacob Sattelmair review the literature on exercise and learning and conclude that “There is abundant evidence that regular physical activity benefits the brains and bodies of school-aged children.”

• “Instant Recess” a series of short 10-minute exercise breaks that can be done in the classroom. More information on the Toni Yancey website.