Originally published Aug. 4, 2018 by the Journal Review.
By Dr. Richard Elghammer
If you had asked me, when I was a 10-year -old boy attending school, “What do you like most about school?” my answer was lunch and recess.
Lunch was good because I liked food (still do), and my mother, a five-star cook, packed my lunch with delicious sandwiches and occasional surprises (Heath bar, tootsie roll). Recess was good because I hated (still do) being forced to sit all day at my desk. Recess for me was the same as racing is to a thoroughbred competing in the Kentucky Derby: the freedom to run your heart out in a pell-mell dash down a dirt racetrack, and the power-raw muscular power-to push and push your body until your front legs cross the finish line. Recess gave my body unfettered freedom to do what all children’s bodies are engineered to do, namely, to run, jump, hop, skip, swing, teeter, roll, stretch and twist.
But, as I climbed up the ladder of education, from grade to grade, a peculiar thing began to happen: recess time was shortened, and classroom time was lengthened. I knew, by fifth grade, that a plot to take away my fun had been hatched. So, it was without surprise, that when I started junior high, the proof of this plot became in-your-face clear. Recess changed its name to P.E., and for uncoordinated, non-athletic kids like me, life was never again the same. Many stories of P.E. humiliation are still carried in my heart. Where to start? Well, rope climbing, chin-up bar and the last to be picked for team sports are my Triple Crown Award. You now understand my glee and smoking revenge as I show you the research studies proving that the old P.E. is out, and the new P.E. is in.
Here is a summary of the new research findings about P.E., published in the book, “The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” by John Ratey.
- The 400-year-old idea that we are born with a fixed number of brain cells (called neurons) which die off is false.
- New brain cells (a process called neurogenesis) are constantly being produced.
- Under a specific condition, neurogenesis, learning, memory, attention and motivation can be boosted or optimized. The name of the conditions which boosts brain functioning is physical fitness.
These scientific breakthroughs in neuroscience (the study of how our brain works) have created the “new P.E.,” which contains these elements.
- P.E. is the teaching of physical fitness, not sports. While sports training is included in the new P.E., it is done so using a new model called fitness for life. Using this model, the value of exercise is taught so, when students reach adulthood, they will maintain 3 times a week exercise routine.
- Basic principles of fitness (regular exercise, weight management, aerobic conditioning, body fat percentages, muscle strength, endurance, flexibility) are taught as foundation skills so that young people can make fitness a lifestyle.
- Cardiovascular conditioning is taught, using heart rate monitors so that students can learn how to measure aerobic fitness. They are then trained in how to reach and maintain, during high intensity workouts, 80-90 percent of their maximum heart rate.
- In fifth grade, students complete a fitness assessment so that baseline data can be used to track increases in fitness, throughout junior high and high school. A computer system called TriFit gives each student yearly targets for heart rate, blood pressure and body fat.
- Many different types of exercise and fitness approaches are taught (kayaking, rock wall climbing, biking). The idea of teaching diversity of exercise types is to avoid burn out or boredom, when they reach adulthood.
- Grading is based on effort, not skill.
The new P.E. system has a proven track record of increasing both fitness and academic learning. To grasp the power of the new P.E., listen to this quote (from the Spark book) made by a high school P.E. teacher: “In our department (the new P.E), we create the brain cells. It’s up to the other teachers to fill them.”