“Mind-body-soul”: we’ve all heard someone talk about this trifecta—probably someone who seems to have it all figured out. Maybe that one friend who sticks to their strict exercise regimen weekly?
Most of us have heard it before, that exercise—whether it’s tranquil yoga, pool pilates, or ferocious tennis tournaments—is good. We’ve all heard the spiel—exercise is important, necessary, and good.
And it’s true! Exercise is pivotal to living a healthy life. Namely, it’s a key player in reducing disease risk, maintaining a healthy weight, improving mental health, and boosting brain function.
Hold up—brain function? Exercise can help students do better in school? This one sometimes surprises people; maybe because we tend to associate academic success more with sedentary behavior than active behavior (AKA sitting for hours in front of a textbook).
Surely enough, a 2018 study in the British Journal of Psychology found that aerobic exercise can boost brain power enough for us to determine connections and learn new things.
Another study demonstrated that children who are physically fit are more likely to perform better in school and achieve higher grades than those who are physically unfit.
And don’t get it twisted—to succeed as a student, you definitely do need to put in the work memorizing formulas, understanding equations, and identifying literary symbols. But, you need to consider something else that’s vital to not only academic success, but long term brain health: movement.
Researchers, for a long time now, have demonstrated that physical activity is linked to enhanced cognitive development and brain health. Moreover, literature and reviews on the topic show that exercise is related to improvements in the brain structure and functions behind academic performance.
Let’s go deeper.
How does exercise impact learning ability?
There are several ways in which physical exercise can improve academic performance and outcomes.
Exercise improves concentration
Ever notice how after a stroll around the block you can think more clearly? It’s not just in your head (pun intended).
When you exercise, the blood pressure and blood flow increases throughout your body. Your brain receives more energy and oxygen—which in turn, enables it to perform better.
To examine the relationship between brain blood supply and cognitive function, German researchers recruited 47 participants and examined brain blood supply going to the hippocampus. A major role in memory and learning, the hippocampus is a brain structure embedded in the temporal lobe.
The researchers found that a group of the participants had alterations in their brain’s blood vessels, which affected blood flow to the hippocampus. In addition, this group had lower cognitive test scores. These two findings led the researchers to conclude that blood and oxygen pumping through the blood vessels could have a significant effect on cognitive function and performance.
Furthermore, as our collective declining focus is already increasing, it’s of the utmost importance that students implement movement into their day.
Exercises strengthens memory
Memory is a key component of learning. Students are required to use their memory on a day-to-day basis. You learn, memorize facts/studies/equations/formulae/conjugations, and then demonstrate your knowledge.
Researchers have proposed that, compared to people who don’t exercise, people who do exercise hold larger brain regions related to thinking and memory.
In Gretchen Reynolds’ New York Times article on memory mnemonics, she explains how experiments demonstrate that mice and rats who jog on running wheels after obtaining a new skill learn better than sedentary rodents. Evidently, exercise boosts the biochemical production related to memory.
“Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a regular exercise program of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
On top of all this, exercise plays another important role in strengthening your memory—but in a more indirect way. That is, by improving your mood and sleep, exercise indirectly boosts your memory.
Exercise increases energy levels
Have you noticed that after pulling an all-nighter, finishing that grueling chapter on the quadratic equation formula (or bingeing a season of Outer Banks), leaves you feeling impaired? That’s because—to some extent—you are impaired! As researchers demonstrate, fatigue is negatively linked to cognitive performance.
Bottom line: you need more energy for your brain to function at its highest capacity. And one way to increase energy? Exercise.
Now, this may sound counterintuitive, but exercise can raise your energy levels. What? Exerting more energy will bring me more energy? Yup.
When you exercise, your body produces mitochondria within your muscle cells. Remember the mitochondria, the powerhouse of cells? Well, the mitochondria has this title because it create energy out of glucose (from food) and oxygen (from air). When your body fills up with more mitochondria, it’s consequently filling up with more energy.
Now we’re going to circle back to the whole sleep factor.
Actually, the cycle itself is a circle—and this circle can go one of two ways:
Basically, it’s all connected: sleep, energy, and cognitive function.
The interesting thing here is that while exercise can provide you with more energy to get your work done, energy can also enable you to get better sleep. And then the cycle can continue! A review and meta-analysis on sleep quality and insomnia illustrates that exercise does indeed have positive effects on sleep quality.
Exercise improves creative thinking
Although you might not immediately think of creativity and education as related, the ability to think outside the box and bring unique perspectives to the table is critical. With creativity, you devise multiple solutions to a problem; you can learn about your inner talents; and you can develop novel ideas for showcasing your work.
So how do you increase your capacity for creativity? Exercise.
According to a study on bodily movement and creativity, people who exercise frequently tend to also be more creative. Furthermore, the study demonstrates that active people develop more and higher-quality ideas during inventiveness tests than people who are relatively sedentary.
Additionally, a 2014 Stanford study found that movement is significantly and positively associated with cognitive efforts in creativity—specifically, divergent thinking, which is the process of developing open-ended, original ideas.
Why is this? As noted previously, when you exercise, your brain gets that influx of oxygen-rich blood, which means it provides you with more fuel. But in addition, some research suggests that exercise can induce new connections between brain cells, providing you with a greater capacity to develop ideas.
Exercise can help reduce stress, anxiety, & depression
Just how when you’re tired you feel impaired, when you’re stressed, anxious, or depressed, you may not feel equipped to use your brain to the max. That’s why it’s important to look at the ways in which you can reduce these feelings; and in turn, improve your brain’s functionality.
You know where I’m going with this.
When you exercise, your brian produces endorphins—which are basically natural happy pills. Think: runner’s high. Essentially, this process enables you to shed—to some extent—negative feelings such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
What can schools do?
While ideally, students would have periods dedicated to physical activity every day, unfortunately that’s not the case for all. Often, students aren’t getting regular gym class due to budget cuts, shorter school days, and a rigid focus on academics.
In addition, schools often lump together recess and lunch, which means students may not always get enough time to move around.
Fortunately, there are several ways to implement more movement into students’ days, such as:
After- and before-school activities
Walking tours/nature walks
Longer recess—it will ultimately contribute to improving student success!
- Active reviewing exercises such as charades, ball-toss spelling exercises, and spelling hopscotch
If students don’t like traditional exercise?
It’s not uncommon for students—or people, in general—to be averse to traditional exercise. Plenty of students dislike team sports and would rather have their teeth pulled than go do a structured gym workout.
So what can you do? It’s rather simple.
Reframe exercise as “movement”
When you reframe “exercise” as “movement”, you remove the traditional standards of physical activity. In reality, there are no limits on the types of movement out there. There are so many ways for you to move your body and get the blood flowing.
Here are some examples of non-traditional physical activity to recommend to students:
In addition, you can also go way outside of the box and think of something that isn’t an official activity. Encourage students to come up with dances to their favorite songs. Or recommend that they develop their very own obstacle course—whether in the house or outside.
A little goes a long way.
Now, let’s be clear—you don’t have to run five miles every morning before school.
In a study by the journal Neurology: Clinical Practice, researchers reviewed almost 100 current studies focused on exercise along with more than 122 different brain function tests. They found that people who exercised for around 52 hours over six months showed the greatest improvements in cognitive and speed tests.
This comes to, on average, exercising for about an hour, three times a week.
So really, a little goes a long way.
Author: Lydia Schapiro