How physical exercise helps students get intellectually fit

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To prepare for high school life, the new Grade 9 students headed to Midland Secondary early on Thursday. They found their lockers, received their schedules, and memorized their wireless passwords.

They also received a short session on the importance of exercise. But physical form – not physical – was the theme. They learned that classes at this century-old Georgian Bay Cottage Country school don’t just mean sitting at your desk. Here the study of everything from history to arithmetic also includes lane football, the ultimate frisbee in the backyard, even “swimming” on the floor – some of the brief workouts known as of Spark breaks.

Classes are 75 minutes long, but “to be honest I really have a hard time sitting still for 10 minutes,” admits Walker Hunter, a grade 10 student who helped demonstrate floor swimming and others. activities during orientation. On a fitness break, he says, “you cool off, but you’re still in work mode, and you can start over. It gives me time to get out and refocus.”

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Getting students to focus is a perennial concern, but it seems especially urgent right now, as grades-obsessed parents, politicians and school counselors wring their hands in the face of Canada’s recent drop in international rankings. in mathematics.

With that worry back in the news this week when Ontario’s elementary math scores plunged, neuroscience is coming up with this subversive solution: Cut math lessons to dance – or walk, jump, play wrestling. … The theory being that whatever makes the heart beat will get the brain buzzing too.

“If you want to increase test scores, we have documented evidence – far-reaching evidence – that the key is to include fitness-based activity in the day,” insists John Ratey, psychiatrist at Harvard Medical. School and principal investigator in the area. “There is no doubt about it.”

Of course, exercise promotes overall health. But in recent years, neuroscientists have made significant strides in quantifying its brain-stimulating powers at all stages of life.

A recent study suggested that exercise is an important protection against Alzheimer’s disease.

For young minds, the benefits for academic performance and attention are also compelling: not only do children with higher fitness levels have a more developed brain structure and better cognitive test scores, incorporating exercise. – even short periods of moderate activity – in class time improves focus, retention and test scores.

Last week, researchers at the University of Illinois reported that children who are fitter have better white matter pathways (which affect learning) in their brains, building on previous work. in which they also found higher levels of development in areas of the brain that support critical thinking and memory.

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For another study to be published soon, the university’s neurocognitive kinesiology lab conducted a clinical trial with children aged 7 to 9. Half participated in a two-hour game-based workout after class. In 160 days, says Charles Hillman, the head of the lab, these young people were found to have a “significant” increase in brain function compared to the control group, and performed better on attention and cognitive tests.

Science suggests that even in the short term, exercise can be a level shift. Previous research by Dr. Hillman’s team has shown that 20 minutes of easy walking (kids didn’t even sweat) improves performance in areas of the brain that support math and reading results for up to one o’clock.

The benefits have been seen in children of all fitness levels. But research has found even greater gains from exercise in children who have attention deficit disorder – or whose families are less well off and able to provide fewer extracurricular activities.

The theory also applies to college

In June, researchers at Dartmouth College reported that even less aerobic exercise – 12 minutes – increased students’ attention scores. But the improvement was so significant for low-income students that it essentially eliminated the gap in pre-test performance with higher-income peers.

The findings, suggests Michelle Tine, co-author of the report, support the idea of ​​having multiple activity sessions interspersed with class time. “It’s especially exciting,” she says, “because quick exercises are quite easy to implement, both cost and time wise. “

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It should be obvious to add more exercise to the school day, says Mark Tremblay, an obesity researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

“Being inactive for long periods of time is a bad idea biologically,” says Professor Tremblay, who also teaches pediatrics at the University of Ottawa. “You are designed to move, and you have to watch it, not suppress it.”

If the science is so strong – and the solution so simple – why has this practice not been adopted more universally in schools across the country? In part, that’s because a society obsessed with test scores will resist interrupting class time to dance or host games with names like “huckle loop”. Indeed, when Canada’s international math scores plunged last December for the third consecutive review period, suggested solutions ranged from better teacher training to student relearning of multiplication tables. Parents didn’t ask for more hopscotch in the hallway (also popular at Midland Secondary), especially not in high school.

Canadian students now spend more time sitting at desks than those in many other industrialized countries. The curriculum in Ontario, for example, requires daily exercises for younger students, although educators quietly admit that the policy is applied inconsistently. In fact, less than half of all elementary schools in the country now have a trained physical education teacher for the job.

Most high school students only need to take one PE class, so gymnasium is usually a class to be avoided in Grade 9. (Manitoba is the only province that still requires a credit each year.)

This trend is reflected in a sharp decline in overall activity levels as Canadian children grow older. While 84 percent of 3- to 4-year-olds get the recommended 180 minutes of physical activity per day, only 7 percent of 5-11-year-olds get the 60 minutes deemed necessary for them – and the figure drops to just 4 percent for children 12 to 17 years old.

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Not only have a growing number of schools decided to turn the tide, but a new public-private partnership to be announced next month and backed by $ 4.8 million in federal funding over the next five years will provide a morning exercise regimen at 450 other schools across the country. In the United States, as part of Sparking Life, a program developed by Dr. Ratey at Harvard, some schools offer voluntary activity times before the bell rings, while others have given way to the day. 30 minutes of compulsory exercise. The approach was taken by eight schools in the Niagara region of Ontario, after a 2011 pilot project reported higher scores in math and reading comprehension among exceptional students who attended sessions. daily fitness training.

But more and more schools are also adopting the approach used in Midland and incorporating exercises between Shakespeare and algebra.

Alison Cameron, a special education teacher in Saskatoon, was one of the first in Canada to put her students on treadmills to improve their concentration. Since then, she has helped bring the concept to classrooms across North America, including nearly 50 Indigenous schools in Saskatchewan.

In addition to Midland, which introduced them last year, at least four high schools in Simcoe County are now using Spark breaks as teaching strategies.

“It’s a bit counterintuitive,” says Russell Atkinson, the pioneering principal who made Barrie Central Collegiate the first school in the area to try the approach in 2011.

“You take time away from the program and do things that don’t seem to relate. We’ve seen amazing results. Teachers said the mood boost was worth it.”

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The program easily included students who weren’t star athletes, he says, and fears that classes would struggle to settle in never materialized. There is no evidence that about 15 minutes of throwing a ball or walking around the room interfered with learning. In contrast, Barrie Central’s math scores increased by more than 10 percent in the 2012/13 school year. Plus, there were more passing marks for students in English and math – and fewer behavioral issues and suspensions.

“I definitely find myself more focused,” says Rachel Pigott, a grade 11 student at Barrie Central. Last year, her math teacher asked for a break from exercises after introducing a new subject.

“It’s just a great time to let the lesson sink in,” she explains. “When you come home, it’s a fresh take on work.”

Now when she’s doing her homework, Rachel takes her own breaks to shoot baskets or go for a walk. “I know the benefit of taking a break.

A double reward

Dr. Hillman’s lab in Illinois has produced more than 100 research papers on exercise and learning. He said if he had to design a school day it would look a lot like Barrie or Midland.

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Not only are there immediate benefits, he says, but the 10 minutes for every hour or so of class adds up to a significant portion of the recommended daily total for exercise, which has been found to produce a long-term brain improvement for students.

“Everyone comes back and says there are positive behavioral, emotional, academic effects and asks, ‘Why isn’t everyone doing it? “, Says Cameron, clearly frustrated.” But the people who make the decisions do not put the practice in place. I don’t understand her. “

According to Professor Tremblay in Ottawa, adding exercise to the school day is okay. At best, as science suggests, grades improve. At worst, they stay flat, but at least the students are more active. He predicts that, before long, the public will be warned not to sit for more than 30 minutes at a time – even learning your fractions.

Perhaps more important in the long run than math scores, he adds, young people will learn something fundamental about the role of physical activity – the kind that doesn’t require elite skills and a team uniform. A little ground swimming may be just what your brain needs.

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