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Fit Brains for the Future: How Exercise Supports
Cognitive Function, Learning, and
Marcus Conyers Center for Innovative Education and Prevention
Last summer in Cambridge, England,
the cannon boomed, hearts pounded, and oars dug deep into the River
Cam, as our eight-man crew drove the boat forward. The crew behind was
fighting hard to catch us. Every muscle hurt as we moved steadily up on
the crew in front. Our coach, keeping pace with us on a bicycle on the
towpath by the river, gave two sharp whistles to let us know we were
only a length away. Then, three whistles, half a length. An
almost-primal instinct powered our blades. In my peripheral vision, I
glimpsed the boat in front, and seconds later we caught it.
Exhilaration surged as we gave their crew three cheers, wrapped victory
wreaths of willow on our sweaty heads, celebrating the fact that we had
caught the crews in front of us for the fourth night. We had won our
Forty years earlier, when I first achieved this goal for rowing in my
high school, competing in the same competition was much easier. I had
no idea back then that the training I was doing was laying a healthy
foundation for my late 50’s and beyond. In conducting research for our
new book, Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being
(Conyers & Wilson, 2015), I reviewed some fascinating studies
on the positive impact of physical fitness and strength training on
what we call the Body-Brain System. Our new book shares research and
strategies to maximize performance across the life span. This article
focuses on the implications of recent research on physical health and
cognitive functioning in an educational context. The data indicate that
we need a dramatic change in policy and practice to increase fitness
levels for children and youth, and to help them understand the lifelong
connection between physical health and brainpower.
The Positive Impact of Cardiovascular Fitness
Making exercise part of your daily routine builds a healthier body and has tremendous benefits for the brain as well:
activity is associated with a larger hippocampus, which is involved in
memory and spatial processing. This association holds for people of all
ages. Researchers working with groups of older adults found that
hippocampal volume increased by 2% among participants in an exercise
training regimen but decreased slightly in a control group (Erickson,
et al., 2010). Another study with 9- and 10-year-olds found that
children who were more fit had hippocampi that were 12% larger relative
to total brain size than their less fit peers (Chaddock, et al., 2010).
Exercise activates the frontal and parietal regions of the brain,
associated with executive function (Best, December, 2010). In
particular, the prefrontal cortex has been identified as the center for
executive functioning, activating awareness of learning stimuli, and
regulating and coordinating cognitive skills (Wilson & Conyers,
April 2, 2015). Tests of cognitive performance and brain scans of
children involved in an after-school program promoting daily moderate
to vigorous physical activity indicated more efficient functioning in
the prefrontal cortex. “These results suggest that physical activity
during childhood may enhance specific elements of prefrontal cortex
function involved in cognitive control” (Chaddock-Heyman, et al., 2013).
Workouts increase the production of the brain chemical BDNF,
which doctor and neuroscientist Majid Fotuhi refers to as “effective
fertilizer for the brain” for its role in supporting the production and
maintenance of neurons and synapses (Fotuhi, 2013). Neuronal and
synaptic plasticity are the brain processes that change the function
and structure of the brain in response to learning.
Aerobic exercise increases angiogenesis, the growth of blood
vessels that improve oxygen flow to the brain. “A third of the brain is
made up of blood vessels and a full 20 percent of the heart’s output
goes to the brain, despite the fact that the brain only accounts for
about 2 percent of a person’s body weight” (Fotuhi, 2013). This is
another link in the chain that ties cardiovascular fitness to healthy
Exercise can help reduce symptoms of depression, alleviate
stress, and put us in a more positive mood, which in turn can make us
more creative and productive. Regular physical activity increases
activation in the left hemisphere of the brain, which has been shown to
support a more positive outlook (Hecht, September, 2013).
In short, these
interconnections of our thinking, feeling, and physical selves
influence our readiness, motivation, and ability to learn and to
thrive. A wide range of research emphasizes the importance of starting
children off right by incorporating regular exercise into their daily
routines. Making physical fitness a habit will pay dividends throughout
their lives in both physical and brain health.
As just one example of these findings, Swedish researchers who have
conducted large-scale longitudinal studies that compared men’s health
as they entered military service in their late teens with their health
later in life conclude that cardiovascular fitness in youth is
predictive of lower risk of heart disease, dementia, and other forms of
cognitive impairment in middle age and beyond. One such study reported
in the European Heart Journal
(Hogstrom, Nordstrom, & Nordstrom, January 8, 2014) indicates that
teens and young adults who exercise regularly have a 35% reduced risk
of heart attack later in life. A 15% increase in aerobic fitness as a
teenager is associated with an 18% reduced risk of heart attack three
decades later, this research suggests.
even more titillating pattern exists within the Swedish case,” note
authors John Ratey and Richard Manning (Ratey & Manning, 2014).
“The data set included 270,000 brothers and 1,300 identical twins and
showed that cardio fitness and not familial relationship turned out to
be the better predictor of both cognitive ability and IQ. That is,
despite the popular assumption that IQ is genetically determined,
fitness and not genes held the greater sway over these tests of
intellect.” Commenting in a HealthDay
(Thompson, January 8, 2014) article on the connection between physical
fitness in youth and lifelong health, Stephen Daniels, chairman of
pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a
spokesman for the American Heart Association, said, “Even though the
diseases we see are diseases of older adults, it’s increasingly clear
that where people are in childhood and adolescence is critically
The Body-Brain Connection in Education
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) have taken the lead in advocating for incorporating
physical activity into the school day to nurture healthy bodies and
minds. The CDC produced a meta-analysis of 50 studies on the impact of
exercise on school performance, encompassing formal physical education
classes, active play during recess, after-school sports and other
activities, stretch and movement breaks in the classroom, and even
“active” transportation to and from school, e.g., walking, riding
bikes, skateboarding (CDC, April, 2010). The analysis concludes that
exercise breaks throughout the school day boost academic performance
and that enhancing students’ physical fitness supports development of
their cognitive abilities. This report also offers evidence that trends
in some school districts to reduce time for students to engage in
physical education and recess in favor of spending more time at their
desks may actually be counterproductive. None of the studies included
in the meta-analysis found any negative consequences for making
physical activity a regular part of the daily learning regimen. In a
study of the Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in suburban
Chicago, Ratey and Hagerman (2008) report that since the district has
focused on creating a “culture of fitness” and required daily physical
education for all students, Naperville has posted significant gains on
What researchers have found is that students perform better on reading
comprehension, spelling, and math tests when they have the opportunity
to participate in 20 minutes of physical activity immediately before
their exams, and that more physically fit middle schoolers perform
better on assessments of math and reading that do their less fit peers
(CDC, April, 2010). In addition to the direct connection between
body-brain health and regular physical activity, incorporating movement
and exercise into the school day may support learning by:
attention. Experienced teachers see firsthand the benefits of short
exercise or stretching breaks or an active recess on the playground in
helping to resharpen the focus on learning.
Supporting cognitive flexibility. You may have experienced this
phenomenon yourself. When you are dealing with a perplexing problem,
try taking a break and going for a run or walk, or stopping by the gym.
Physical movement has the power to free the mind of clutter and help
fresh ideas and possible solutions “click” into place.
Fueling creativity through playful physical activity. In his book, Shine: Using Brain Science toGet the Best from Your People, Hallowell (2011) suggests that “people at play produce creative results and leap from the humdrum to the exceptional.”
Engaging the senses. The visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory
senses gather the input that sends signals to the brain, which in turn
causes the rest of the body to react and engage with the world. An
especially effective way to engage the senses is to get outside every
day, if possible. Taking a break outside can help students refresh and
refocus (Wilson & Conyers, 2013).
Making the Grade
Despite all the evidence that incorporating opportunities for
exercise and active play into the school day enhances learning, a
decline has recently occurred in the amount of physical activity in
American schools. According to a review by the U.S. Government
Accounting Office, time allotted for physical education has declined,
and only 4% of elementary schools, 8% of middle schools, and 2% of high
schools offered daily physical education in 2006 (Pekruhn, 2009). A
2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the
Bridging the Gap Research Program (CDC, 2014) found that only five
states require daily recess for elementary school students, and only
ten states required a set amount of physical activity in the school day.
To head off the argument that they make up for sedentary school days by exercising after school and on the weekends, the 2014 U.S. Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth
(National Physical Activity Plan Alliance, 2014)sounds the alert that
only one-quarter of students ages 6–15 meet guidelines for at least 60
minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. This report
card assigns a letter grade of D- to the overall fitness levels of the
nation’s children and youth and a C- to the role of American schools in
helping students maintain their physical fitness.
We can improve these ratings and, in the bargain, enhance students’
learning readiness by weaving opportunities for physical activity
throughout the school day—in the classroom, in the gym, on the
playground, on the sports fields, and in going to and from school. In
doing so, we can both increase academic achievement and set children on
the path for healthier, more productive lives in adulthood. We can help them develop fit brains for the future.
CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Bridging the Gap Research Program (2014). Strategies for supporting recess in elementary schools. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Chaddock, L., Erickson, K.I., Prakash, R.S., Kim,
J.S., Voss, M.W, VanPatter, M., … Kramer, A.F. (2010). A neuroimaging
investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal
volume, and memory performance in preadolescent children. Brain Research, 1358, 172–183.
Chaddock-Heyman, L., Erickson, K.I., Voss, M.V.,
Knecht, A.M., Pontifex, M.B., Castelli, D.M., … Kramer, A.F. (2013).
The effects of physical activity on functional MRI activation
associated with cognitive control in children: A randomized controlled
intervention. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3594762/.
Conyers, M.A., & Wilson, D.L. (2015). Positively smarter: Science and strategies for increasing happiness, achievement, and well-being. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
Erickson, K.I., Voss, M.W., Prakash, R.S., Basak,
C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., … Kramer, A.F. (2010). Exercise training
increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 3017–3022. doi: http://www.pnas.org/content/108/7/3017.full.
Fotuhi, M. (2013). Boost your brain: The new art and science behind enhanced brain performance. New York: HarperOne.
Hallowell, E.M. (2011). Shine: Using brain science to get the best from your people. Boston: Harvard Review.
Hecht, D. (September, 2013). The neural basis of optimism and pessimism. Experimental Neurobiology, 22(3), 173–199. doi: 10.5607/en.2013.22.3.173.
Hogstrom, G., Nordstrom, A., & Nordstrom, P.
(January 8, 2014). High aerobic fitness in late adolescence is
associated with a reduced risk of myocardial infarction later in life:
A nationwide cohort study in men. European Heart Journal. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/eht527.
Nyberg, J., Aberg, M.A.I., Schioler, L., Nilsson,
M., Wallin, A., Toren, K., & Kuhn, H.G. (2014). Cardiovascular and
cognitive fitness at age 18 and risk of early-onset dementia. Brain, A Journal of Neurology. doi: 10.1093/brain/awu041.
Pekruhn, C. (2009). Preventing childhood obesity: A school health policy guide. Arlington, VA: Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, National Association of State Boards of Education.
Ratey, J.J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little Brown.
Ratey, J.J., & Manning, R. (2014). Go wild: Free your body and mind from the afflictions of civilization [Kindle edition]. New York: Little Brown.
Marcus Conyers is co-author of 20 books, including Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being (Wiley, 2015) and Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice
(Teachers College, 2013). Marcus is co-developer (with Donna Wilson) of
curriculum for graduate degree programs with majors in Brain-Based
Teaching and Brain-Based Leadership at Nova Southeastern University. An
international keynote speaker, he is founder of the nonprofit Center
for Innovative Education and Prevention and the developer of the
Innovating Minds™ program for cultivating creative and critical
thinking skills. He writes for both Kappan and Educational Leadership and is a blogger on Edutopia.
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