Exercise and Physical Activity Must Be Part of 21st Century Learning

John Medina, developmental molecular biologist, has written an extremely readable book entitled Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. In it, he provides readers with a list of "12 Brain Rules" to guide them in getting the most from their own brains. The first principle he discusses in the book is "Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power." I know from a workshop I attended a few years ago on brain research that exercise has beneficial effects on cognitive functioning. In his book, Medina makes this lesson even more clear. He asks the question, "Is there a relationship between exercise and mental alertness? The answer is, it turns out, yes."

Medina writes, "A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared to those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid intelligence tests." So the rule for adults like ourselves? We need to get exercising in order to sharpen our minds. According to Medina, a walk for as little as 20 minutes a day will improve our cognitive performance.

What about our students? According to Medina, "Physically fit children identify visual stimuli much faster than sedentary ones. They appear to concentrate better. Brain activation studies show that children and adolescents who are fit allocate more cognitive resources to a task and do so for longer periods of time." So our students do benefit from physical exercise. Medina goes on to say"Physical activity is cognitive candy." He mentions the fact that school districts around the country are giving up physical education and recess because of the intense focus on test scores. "Given the powerful effects of physical activity, this makes no sense." He says that "Cutting off physical exercise---the very activity likely to promote cognitive performance---to do better on a test score is like trying to gain weight by starving yourself."

So what does Medina suggest? He suggests that instead of having students always sit at desks, have them walking on treadmills." Well, I know, we don't have treadmills, but we can look for ways to get students physically active. He suggests that teachers teach while students take a walk. Perhaps if you sense students' attention is waning, you might engage them in something to increase the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain. According to Medina, the evidence is clear that physical activity can increase cognitive functioning and alertness.

Medina's ideas about the efficacy of exercise and brain function isn't new. We've all heard it before. This might just serve as a reminder about the importance of our students getting physical activity.
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