Why Are We Learning This? Teaching Physical Education Boosts Brain Power

We all know that exercise helps fight obesity and keeps us healthy, preventing physical problems when we’re older. For students, however, these benefits aren’t in the forefront of their minds. Even further away are the emotional and mental benefits of physical education, both of which are key to fostering learning and cognitive development. 

To ensure your students are getting all the benefits of physical activity, here’s how to explain the importance of staying active — plus fun tips for getting your classroom moving.

Articulating the Mind-Body Link

In addition to helping children ward off obesity and stay more alert, regular exercise has been proven to increase the size of children’s brains, according to a study by the University of Granada, published in the journal NeuroImage. 

The research found that grey matter volume in the cortical and subcortical regions increased in response to frequent physical exercise. This increased volume was linked to improved academic performance.

“Physical fitness is a factor that can be modified through physical exercise, and combining exercises that improve the aerobic capacity and the motor ability would be an effective approach to stimulate brain development and academic performance in overweight and obese children,” says University of Granada researcher Irene Esteban-Cornejo.

Active children have also been shown to have better concentration and longer attention spans. In other words, being fit helps students complete assignments more efficiently, says Julie Davis at WebMD. 

This was demonstrated in a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. These findings suggest that “engaging in sports in late childhood positively influences cognitive and emotional functions.” Such cognitive functions include memory, attention and visual-spatial thinking.

One reason why exercise improves student focus and memory is because it boosts energy and blood flow levels. This allows more oxygen and nutrients to get to essential tissues, explains Anne Etra at Care.com. By nourishing the body in this way, children are equipped with more energy and endorphins to continue leading a productive day.

The energy boost from exercise also makes it easier for children to engage in essential critical thinking exercises and to foster relationships with others, says Morgan Hudson at Teams of Tomorrow. She refers to a 2016 study by the University of Exeter which examined the relationship between exercise and brain power in young people.

“Regular physical activity can help develop important life skills, and boost self-esteem, motivation, confidence and wellbeing. And it can strengthen/foster relationships with peers, parents, and coaches,” according to Jens Bangsbo and fellow researchers.

When students are reluctant to take or participate in PE class or go outside to play at recess, teachers can explain how creating time for exercise actually makes students perform better in school. This can help both teachers and students realize that time taken away from schoolwork to engage in exercise is a beneficial step for learning.

Teaching Physical Education

Exercise and Emotions

Exercise also is known to have amazing emotional benefits. Why? Because it’s directly related to reducing our stress responses, says teacher Nancy Barlie, referencing the book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by neuropsychiatrist John Ratey.

“Exercise controls the emotional and physical feelings of stress, and it also works at the cellular level. Physical activity is a natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress because it can ward off the ill effects of chronic stress and actually reverse them.” 

Exercise also boosts a child’s ability to control his or her mood, according to Merrimack College department of health sciences assistant professor April Bowling. “Aerobic exercise can change brain chemistry, and specifically the levels of certain neurotransmitters that might help improve an individual’s self-regulation. When mood and self-regulation — the ability to control behavior — is improved, then children can function better in the classroom,” she explains.

Mood regulation is directly tied to stress and anxiety reduction. The American Council on Exercise points out that children who exercise frequently experience reduced instances of anxiety and depression. Plus, active children tend to become active adults, as healthy physical habits tend to stick.

This suggests that, as children learn to regulate their moods through physical exercise, such habits may allow them to better manage stress and anxiety as adults. 

To help students understand the benefits of exercise on emotions, teachers should show them how to articulate their feelings. Students who can name a feeling can differentiate how exercise affects that feeling in their body. To teach about emotions, homeschooling mom Sharla Kostelyk offers a few ideas. 

She suggests a number of games around vocabulary, which can help students learn what different feelings are called. Naming emotions can be particularly challenging for children who have experienced trauma or who are on the autism spectrum. That’s why it’s key to introduce such activities early on. 

Teaching Physical Education

Encouraging Active Students

When students are disengaged in physical activity at school, parents might be able to help. Active for Life, a Canadian social enterprise that aims to improve physical literacy, explains how to encourage enjoyable activity.

One suggestion, which both parents and teachers can embody, is being an active example. When students don’t see active role models, they won’t see the correlation between physical activity and overall well being. Make it a point to acknowledge that you’re having fun while staying healthy, and that there’s a physical activity for everyone to enjoy.

At school, teachers can incorporate small physical activities into the daily classroom routine. Taking a quick break for jumping jacks or stretches between lessons can make a big difference in how children feel physically and emotionally. 

Educational consultant Kristine Scharaldi says these activities can also serve as a great transition between subjects. She suggests even having students act out concepts they’re learning as a way to get those bodies moving. 

Creating a classroom environment conducive to exercise gives students permission to get up and move around. According to the nonprofit Action For Healthy Kids, acquiring a few props like yoga mats, balance boards and spot markers can make things more fun. Another idea is to incorporate age-appropriate music into daily classroom breaks. Asking a parent to create a playlist that supports healthy movement can get families involved in the initiative as well.

Physical therapist Chanda Jothen, who created the physical activity resources website Pink Oatmeal, agrees it’s important to create an environment where physical activity is possible. Her favorite apps that encourages movement in the classroom is Interactive Brain Breaks, which puts exercises into an interactive form students love to engage with. She also likes Interactive Yoga, an app that guides students through fun and healthy yoga poses to stay limber throughout the day.

School-wide physical activity programs reduces the risk of obesity and improves student interest in physical exercise. One successful school program that follows this model is InPACT (Interrupting Prolonged sitting with ACTivity), implemented at Munger Elementary-Middle School in Detroit. The program tested exercise breaks throughout the day across roughly 1,000 students in four schools. 

After the program was implemented, teacher Cesar Reyes said his students seemed less sluggish, happier and more engaged, and they looked forward to the exercise breaks. Since students in low-income districts are especially prone to stress, these breaks can help reduce those external pressures.

Images by: Wavebreak Media Ltd/©123RF.com, Jon Helgason/©123RF.com, Mark Bowden/©123RF.com

See other posts in our Why Are We Learning This series: Teaching Algebra, Teaching Biology, Teaching History.

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