Exercising the Body and the Brain
When your child is at a soccer tournament, swim meet, basketball practice, tennis lessons, or whatever athletic activity they enjoy, they are doing much more than sweating - and having fun. They’re activating their bodies and their brains.
Dr. John Ratey, internationally renowned neuropsychiatry expert and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote the book on exercise and the brain. Literally! In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, he drives home three points:
- Exercise “optimizes” our mindsets to improve alertness, attention, and, motivation.
- Physical activity prompts nerve cells to bind to one another, which enables new learning.
- Exercise jumpstarts the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus - the area of the brain associated with both emotion and memory.
In other words, when children participate in athletics, they get their brains ready to learn - and they make learning last by boosting the capacity to retain information.
In Spark, Dr. Ratey discusses a school district outside of Chicago; they’ve implemented an initiative known as “Zero Hour.” The district wanted to see if exercising before school had an effect on academic performance. So the kids hit the cardio, and then they hit the books. This district has seen a phenomenal increase in measurable learning outcomes - and wellness.
In fact, higher fitness scores correlate with higher test scores. Coincidence? We think not! It’s exercising the body and the brain.
The research around physical activity and educational development is extensive - and conclusive:
- According to research conducted at the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute, physical activity improved white matter integrity in children. White matter integrity is associated with increased cognitive performance.
- University of Columbia researchers discovered that regular exercise - heart-pounding, sweat-producing exercise - increases the size of the hippocampus.
- Folks who exercise have greater volume in terms of their prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex - the areas of the brain associated with thinking and memory. Even better, when you engage in regular exercise over just six to 12 months, you increase the volume in these areas.
- Stress and adversity impair our ability to learn - doubly so for children - but exercise counteracts these challenges by facilitating communication amongst brain cells. Athletics empower brain cells to communicate with one another and build powerful new connections.
Countless other studies attest to the link between physical activity and academic performance. But athletics instill a variety of other benefits in our children. These so-called “soft skills” have a very real impact on their ability to navigate their educational, social, and spiritual worlds:
- Teamwork and communication.
- Healthy, positive peer interactions.
- Leadership development.
- Organization and scheduling. (We know mom and dad tend to handle this! But you can encourage your child to keep a calendar with practices, games, meets, etc.. - and remind you when life gets busy).
- Lifelong healthy habits (e.g. activity, eating well, sleeping enough).
- Individual and school pride.
Athletics instills a sense of accomplishment, and this can prompt students who may struggle with academics to apply the principles they learn on the field or the court in the classroom: perseverance, determination, the importance of small wins and progress.
Does your child play a sport? It’s a great way to develop a strong body and brain!
Emmanuel Lutheran is a private Christian School in Asheville, NC offering sports for students in grades 4-8. Contact us today to setup a tour!