Learning & Exercise

Physical activity enhances learning. Last year Rebecca Fulk, a science teacher in Colorado, decided to see if her middle school students learned better after “classroom brain breaks.” She discovered that movement allowed her students to better focus on their academic work after the breaks. After investigating the effects of current brain research in the science classroom, she incorporated whole brain learning activities throughout her lessons to improve achievement. According to a study conducted by Ratay in 2008, only 4% of elementary schools and 8% of middle schools offer physical education, so she decided to provide movement in her science classes.

The brain has a protein that responds to physical activity. Ms. Fulk cites several studies that demonstrate the link between physical activity and learning ability. For example, “Children who are physically fit display greater cortical activation and corresponding cognitive performance than less fit children.” (Hillman, Castelli, & Buck, 2005). Furthermore, “ Acute exercise was found to have beneficial effects on memory storage processes in preadolescents (Pesce, Crova, Cereatti, Casella, & Bellucci, 2009). While exercise can aid in memory, it may also benefit the process of problem solving. Adolescents who are poor problem solvers have a general working memory deficiency. Passolunghi and Siegel (2001) explained that a poor problem solver’s working memory deficit is related to a failure of an inhibitory mechanism when processing information.”
She designed her lessons to incorporate “brain breaks.” Employing physical movement within the confines of a classroom can be especially challenging because of time and space limitations. A teacher cannot devote 15 minutes of valuable class time to movement, but she can provide a few minutes for students to stand up and move around, even if they shake their arms and legs or do a few jumping jacks. Of course, classroom control is essential! For instance, one of the exercises that Ms Fulk directed was a three minute yoga break. Throughout the eight weeks that she engaged in these activities, she found that her students improved in both behavior and attention. “There were 50% of my students who showed on-task behavior improvement after having completed a break that involved mountain climbers, an aerobic exercise, during class. Running around the arcade enabled an equivalent of 35 % of my class to refocus. Lastly, Eagle Pose aided in refocusing the equivalent of 17% of my class, while Tree Pose helped refocus an equivalent of 38% of participants.”

The message is clear: educating the whole child requires both physical and mental stimulation.

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