Thursday, May 22, 2014

Exercise is Food for Your Brain

Not only can regular workouts in the gym or on the playground improve your child’s attention span, memory and learning, research has also shown that maintaining physical activity reduces stress and the effects of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and can even delay cognitive decline in older age. In short, staying in shape can make your child smarter.  

“The brain's frontal lobe, thought to play a role in cognitive control, keeps growing throughout the school years,” explains Charles Hillman, associate professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois.  "Therefore, exercise could help ramp up the development of a child's brain.”
In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Hillman studied 259 third to fifth graders.  He asked them to participate in regular, gym class activities such as push-­ups and timed runs, and measured their body mass.  Afterwards, he compared their physical results with their math and reading scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

There was a strong correlation between children’s academic success and their time spent in physical activities.  Hillman noticed, “There was a relationship to academic performance.  The more physical tests they passed, th­e better they scored on the achievement test."
“Exercise turns on the attention system, the so-called executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention,” writes John Ratey, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown).  “On a practical level, it causes kids to be less impulsive, which makes them more primed to learn.”

Have you heard of the Naperville Study?  In 2003, Naperville Central High School determined that some of their students were falling academically behind their peers due to poor reading skills.  In addition to forming a reading class for these teens, the school created a PE class that met before school began so the students could still participate in gym class as required by the state of Illinois.  This became the Learning Readiness P.E. (LRPE), a class “designed based on research that indicated students who were physically active and fit were more academically alert.”
Every PE class (before school and during the school day) includes a cardio component for at least twenty minutes, coupled with the use of heart rate monitors to ensure that students are reaching their targeted heart rate zones. 

Paul Zientarski, who was the first LRPE coordinator at the school, explains “Since we understand how exercise helps the brain function, we wanted to make sure that the high school students understood how and why it helps them academically…Students who took PE prior to class showed one and a quarter year's growth on the standardized reading test after just one semester, while the exercise-free students gained just nine-tenths of a year.
Research has shown that innovative and creative approaches to fitness have helped kids - and adults - of all ages and abilities enjoy the benefits of physical activity.  In my nearly 30 years of experience as a Certified Athletic Trainer, I suggest these fitness tips:

  • Set aside a specific time each day for fitness.  If you know that your child has extra energy in the late afternoon, plan to work out at 5pm each day.  This will allow your son an opportunity to unwind from a hectic, school day and better regulate energy needed to complete homework.  By organizing your child’s fitness routine, you can help him stay on task and better his manage time.
  • Exercise every day.  Exercise will help increase blood flow and release endorphins that will boost mood and help clear her mind so she can better focus during the school day and during homework time.
·    Make physical activity fun for the whole family. Play catch - or fetch - with your dogs.  Run around your house or backyard chasing and playing with your pets.  Or, head to the playground.  Playing on the swing set or crossing the monkey bars is a great workout – for you and your child!
Children who are active tend to stay active throughout their lives.  Staying fit can help maintain a healthy weight, improve self-confidence and decrease the risk of certain diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, in addition to keeping their minds sharp as they age.

So, play with your kids!  Your children will have fun and so will you!

To learn how Fitness for Health helps children improve their cognitive abilities through exercise, visit www.FitnessForHealth.org or call 301-231-7138 to schedule a free tour of our facility.

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