Physical exercise (PE) improves fitness. You know this.
But what if I tell you that it can improve your academic performance too?
Naperville Central High School near Chicago, a pioneer and stickler for rigorous PE, reported strong improvement in the learning outcomes of students who enrolled in its Learning Readiness Physical Education (LRPE) program over those who didn’t. Data collected by the school between 2005 and 2010 shows that LRPE students pulled away from their non-LRPE peers by 56 percent in reading and 93 percent in math (both improvements are at the end of the period in a semester).
Naperville Central has been a consistent top performer in academics among high schools in the U.S. And this not an isolated case. Researchers have found correlation between PE (of certain kind, which I’ll cover later in the article) and academic performance.
How does PE improve academic performance?
John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain enumerates three levels at which PE improves learning:
First, it improves alertness, attention, and motivation. Second, at the microscopic level, it encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, thereby facilitating absorption of new information. And third, it engenders new nerve cells in the hippocampus, part of the brain that reposits memory and spatial navigation.
The last two may not be so intuitive, but the first one is: If we are more alert and pay more attention in the class or during self-study, we’ll absorb more, isn’t it? To put it in other words, if you pay more attention, you get more output in the same period of study. An important corollary of improved attention because of physical exercise is reduction in number of silly mistakes in exams, which I’ve experienced many times. (Most silly mistakes result from lack of concentration.) Aren’t they so frustrating?
PE has other benefits too
At City Park Collegiate, Saskatoon, Canada, Allison Cameron faced an unenviable task of teaching students who couldn’t make it to any other school. More than half of them had ADHD, some had behavioral problems, and some had fallen to substance abuse. In short, children who had lost hope.
Allison’s usual teaching and disciplining failed to make a dent in the seemingly hopeless situation… and then she tried something that many would call bizarre.
She put treadmills in the classroom. Not a disciplinary measure. Not a new teaching method. Not a gizmo. Treadmills!
The students grudgingly stepped on to the treadmill, not knowing what the teacher had in mind. Surprisingly for them, soon things started changing. They could concentrate in the class for much longer durations. And over the next four months, they, on an average, gained one full grade in reading, writing, and math. Doesn’t look so bizarre now, right?
But something else too moved. The students mellowed. Their behavior wasn’t as rough as it was in pre-treadmill era. Dustin, one of the most notorious, defiant students who even sweared at the teachers, for example, showed dramatic improvement in his behavior. After the treadmill treatment, he could restrain his anger, concentrate for longer periods, and feel happier overall. He was less defiant now and improved his relationship with the teachers. And guess what, he improved his academic performance too.
If you’ve forgotten, the only difference Allison made was treadmills.
You may watch Saskatoon episode here:
PE also allays depression. To quote Dr. Ratey from his book Spark:
Aside from elevating endorphins, exercise regulates all of the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants.
Antidepressant is the medicine that controls depression by regulating neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that communicate information in our brain and body, in the brain. That means, PE attacks the same fundamental – regulating neurotransmitters – as do antidepressants, and hence is effective against depression.
What type of exercise works the best?
Studies show that vigorous aerobic exercise, the one that ups your heart rate, for 20-30 minutes is most effective for improving learning outcomes. But you should guard against pseudo exercise wherein you take breaks lasting several minutes between two spurts as may happen in team sports.
(Note: not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Before attempting a new exercise take into account factors such as flexibility, strength, and overall health to determine whether or not a particular exercise is appropriate for you. You may consult your professional healthcare provider in this regard.)
That doesn’t mean you trade study with PE
PE is not a replacement for the work you need to put into your studies. What it does is make you more efficient in academics and other areas. And that gain in efficiency means studying at the cost of exercise is not a good idea. (Trade it with something else, say screen time.)
Paul Zientarski, the architect of LRPE at Naperville Central, drives this point home when he says, “People are dropping PE because test scores are failing. That’s not the approach. That’s the exact opposite of what you need to do to be successful.”