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Jump starting the mind


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POSTED: Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Daily, strenuous physical-education classes maximize brain power, according to a Harvard researcher who says cardiovascular fitness improves academic achievement and reduces school discipline problems.

Choosing between P.E. or academics sets up “;a false debate, because our moving brain is our thinking brain. The same ... cells that we move with ... are the ones we use to think. When we move, we activate them,”; said Dr. John J. Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “;Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain.”;

               

     

 

Active Minds

       

        Who: Dr. John J. Ratey, author of “;Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain”;
       

When: Thursday , 8:15 to 9:15 a.m.

       

Where: Stan Sheriff Center

       

How much: Free, but RSVP in advance via e-mail to Jennifer Dang at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

       

Ratey, who is in Honolulu this week, travels the country promoting the importance of daily, strenuous P.E. that boosts cardiovascular fitness and incorporates “;small-sided”; sports—say 3-on-3 basketball—that keep every student moving.

The best programs use heart-rate monitors to gauge individual progress and motivate students to reach a target heart rate, quicken the pace or extend endurance—competing against themselves. Gone are the large team sports that have most of the kids standing on the sidelines or waiting for the ball.

One program Ratey extols was pioneered in the early 1990s by Naperville Central High School in Illinois, whose coaches were alarmed by a growing number of out-of-shape kids turned off by old-school gym class, where the least athletic were always the last to be chosen for team sports.

Although the initial goal was to combat childhood obesity, academic and behavioral progress soon followed—capturing the attention of neuroscientists, who in the past few years have explained the link between exercise and cognitive function.

Last year, Ratey brought the issue to the forefront with “;Spark,”; lobbying for the expansion of rigorous P.E. and “;rough and tumble”; recess in a U.S. educational system dominated by budget cuts, high-stakes testing, and fears of legal liability that keep students deskbound.

He is speaking this week at Schofield Barracks, the Rotary Club and Punahou School, but his largest audience is expected Thursday at the 8th annual Hawaii Statewide Physical Education Conference. Organizers have opened his keynote address free to the public.

Ratey decried the move in many states to cut back physical education, especially in light of the growing scientific evidence that kids who exercise every day do better in school.

“;This is on standardized test, grades, attendance, discipline, everything. In private schools, public schools. Rich kids, poor kids. It does not matter one bit what ethnicity, gender, race,”; he said in a telephone interview Saturday. “;The right kind of P.E. improves academics.”;

He explained that exercise activates “;all our nerve cells and neurotransmitters,”; optimizes the brain for growth, and ignites neurogenesis—or the growth of new cells—in the hippocampus, the brain's core for memory. “;There's nothing that we've found that makes these stem cells grow more than strenuous aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart rate up,”; he said.

Doing something physically challenging that also requires complex thinking is best, Ratey said, citing tennis—running after the ball while deciding where to hit it across the net—as one example. But even simple movements, such as doing jumping jacks while reciting math facts, are useful. He encouraged all teachers to incorporate such “;brain breaks”; in their classrooms.

Ratey stressed that “;we're not talking about burning off energy. It's the opposite of tired out. It's about getting the brain activated,”; which makes students more focused.

Back in Naperville, which pioneered the “;new P.E.”; trend, some students have a high-octane workout right before their most difficult academic class, to optimize brain function.

Schools with fewer resources can replicate the program, Ratey said, citing the example of a P.E. teacher in Charleston, S.C., who had 125 students in grades kindergarten through six, and almost no money.

She set up a 30-minute program before school each day in which the kids rotated among exercise stations including a pogo stick, jump ropes, exercise bikes and a dance videogame. Small groups played basketball and other active sports.

“;She would blow the whistle every eight minutes and the kids changed stations. The first four months, compared to the year before, they saw an 83 percent drop in disciplinary problems throughout the day,”; Ratey marveled.

Only 6 percent of schools nationwide offer P.E. daily, according to Ratey, and Hawaii is no exception.

Whether and how often to offer physical education is up to individual schools under the Department of Education's school-based, lump-sum budgeting. In elementary school, classroom teachers are responsible for all nine content areas—including physical education. Some schools rely on fundraising by parents to hire a P.E. specialist, or do so by cutting something else. In middle school, P.E. is an elective, and in high school there is a one-credit requirement for graduation. Phys-ed varies at private schools, but daily classes are rare.

The lack of physical activity is apparent not only in rising childhood obesity rates and attendant diseases such as diabetes, but also in impaired academic performance.

“;Our society must change,”; Ratey said. “;The brain needs exercise. It's that simple.”;