Originally published June 23, 2018 by WRVO Public Media.
With the demand for schools to focus more on academics and less on gym class, many districts in the U.S. have cut back students’ physical education times or eliminated them completely. However, an author and authority on the connection between brain activity and fitness said the two goals of fitness and academic success are not mutually exclusive.
Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and internationally recognized expert on neuropsychiatry, spoke with “Take Care” about the importance of physical exercise on brain development, especially when it comes to adolescents.
“Recess is going away,” Ratey said. “Teachers are being harassed to test to get test scores up, and with that, they eliminate some of the great subjects, especially PE.”
A trip to Naperville, Illinois, proved to Ratey how active integration of physical education could improve academic performance. In 2003, the student body of 19,000 children was featured in a “Frontline” piece about exemplary schools due to its low obesity rate of 3 percent, compared to the national average of over 30 percent. In addition, Naperville mandated 45 minutes of daily exercise for its students, which Ratey believes helped those students test highest in the world in math and science in international tests.
“People have to recognize the power of what being fit does to the learner; does to the learner’s brain; does to their ability to take in information — to sort through it, to store it, to bring it back, to manipulate it in their minds.”
The link, Ratey explained, is from fitness changing brain chemistry, giving a child increased access to cells for use — brain growth and improvements in the attention spans result. There are both long-term and immediate effects, leading to Naperville teachers telling the students to take their hardest class right after their PE class to increase focus and brain activity.
“That’s what we call natural history finding, where the teachers and the counselors were telling the children to take their hardest class right after they get their brains active and their bodies active,” Ratey said. “And then, there’s a longer-term effect where it begins to change our brain, like anything else that we do on a regular basis, and it makes the brain much more receptive to learn and to understand and to remember.”
Ratey said exercise is also a viable treatment for stress, despite the perception that physical activity can act as a painful stress on the body.
“[Exercise] is a physical stress, but it’s a stress that ends,” Ratey said. “A stress that you have when you’re chronically worried is toxic stress; it doesn’t go away. And you have this stress of exercise intercede…You build of up reservoirs of what I call an internal janitorial service to help deal with the effects of stress on our nerves and our brain cells and helps us readjust so that, eventually, we create more mechanisms to help us deal with stress.”
Essentially, physical activity helps build up the brain’s resistance to stress, making it require more strain to feel stressed at all.
In addition to stress relief, Ratey sees exercise as an important treatment option for the increase in attention deficit disorder diagnoses in children.
“Exercise is, certainly, one of the most important components of treatment for ADD kids,” Ratey said. “What you do is you do the same thing as Ritalin or Adderall does when you exercise; you increase the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.”
The benefits of exercise are numerous, Ratey said, but the U.S. is behind most of the world when it comes to recognizing its importance. Because of this, he recommended radically changing the way physical education is viewed in America.
“People have to recognize the power of what being fit does to the learner, does to the learner’s brain [and] does to their ability to take in information, to sort through it, to store it, to bring it back [and] to manipulate it in their minds,” Ratey said. “And then, perhaps, the world would begin to change and appreciate that this is a tool to make their learner a better learner.”
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