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Exercise for a Healthy Brain

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“Our bodies and our brains respond when we challenge them,” said Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark and The User’s Guide to the Brain. (www.Johnratey.com)

Dr. Ratey spoke at Holland Hall in October as part of the schools Kistler-Gilliland Center lectures to discuss his research on how exercise affects students.

Dr. Ratey, a practicing psychiatrist, credits his dog Jack with his discovery of “The Jack Effect,” wherein after 20 minutes of exercise, Jack could settle down in Ratey’s office. When Jack doesn’t get out to play, Ratey said, he is groggy and listless, unfocused. Not unlike, Ratey suggested, children who are asked to sit in school for long periods of time.

As an example of what a little exercise can do for students, Dr. Ratey described a program in Naperville, Illinois. In 2001, the national average of overweight freshman in any school district was 33 percent, but in Naperville it was only 3 percent. What made such an extreme difference in the statistics? For 20 years, Naperville had implemented a new approach to physical education in its schools.

Naperville students were given individual physical assessments to establish heart rates and fitness. Running games and weightlifting were incorporated into the schools, with students earning grades for meeting specific, individual goals. By shifting fitness to personal goals rather than competition, each student could succeed at his or her own level.

The team competition angle being removed meant that noncompetitive students were as excited about P.E. as their physically gifted peers. In addition, most of the parents were satisfied with the program. District academic scores began to climb. On the International Math and Science exam Naperville students tested at number one in science and number six in math, outperforming even the Asian countries that repeatedly hold top spots.

Dr. Ratey said that what made this program so successful was that fitness became part of the district culture. Fitness was expected. It focused on personal achievement rather than on survival of the fittest, making physical activity and fitness attainable for all students.

Dr. Ratey recognizes the challenge districts face in implementing similar programs. According to him, teachers are under pressure to teach to the test, and their days are far too short as it is. Instructors are loath to surrender instruction time. In some schools, recess is being shortened or cut altogether. Dr. Ratey said that this is to the detriment of academics because children don’t need recess just to burn off extra energy. A fit student is a smarter student.

Dr. Ratey also presented the findings of several studies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and studies in European countries. In Dr. Ratey’s parsing of the research, “there is evidence of a tie between school-based physical education and academic performance.” In study after study, researchers saw an increase in test scores and improved cognitive ability in physically active students.

As an example, Dr. Ratey showed an image of a composite EEG of 20 students sitting still for 20 minutes. In the image, one area of the brain is illuminated. Then he showed an image of the same students after walking for 20 minutes — more areas of the brain were working, including the pre-frontal lobe. The activation of the frontal lobe was of particular importance in Dr. Ratey’s work with children with ADD/ADHD. The pre-frontal lobe, he said, controls executive functions such as impulse control, planning, organizing and evaluating consequences. Dr. Ratey said students with ADD/ADHD have trouble with these particular functions.

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