Educating mind and body II: Exercise and your brain.

Regular moderate exercise is good for learning.

Posted Sep 01, 2009

Over the years, budget cuts have hit these areas of school hard. Physical Education is no longer a daily occurrence. Indeed, Texas just cut its Phys Ed graduation requirement to two semesters over four years. There are still art and music teachers in the schools, but often art and music teachers must visit the classrooms rather than having an open space to let the students spread out and make a mess or create a cacophony.

There are lots of reasons why this lack of movement among kids is a problem. Certainly, the high rate of obesity among children is one reason to want to see more exercise and movement in the schools.

One important influence of exercise is that it releases three important chemicals into your brain: dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These chemicals are neurotransmitters. They help your brain cells pass messages. These particular chemicals play important roles in maintaining a positive mood, sustained attention, and learning. That is, these chemicals influence the kinds of emotional and thinking processes that are important for success in school.

Exercise isn't like a Red Bull, that you can just pull out when you need it, though. For students who are not in shape, exercise is also stressful, and can lead to the release of stress hormones. Stress tends to decrease important aspects of your ability to think such as working memory. So, vigorous exercise is not likely to help you to think better if you are not already in reasonable shape. Moderate regular exercise is much better for thinking than a quick hit of exercise on occasion.

Exercise is not necessarily a cure-all for attention problems. The drugs that are given to help children with ADHD influence the activity of the same chemicals that are released with exercise. The medical literature is mixed on how helpful exercise is for children with ADHD. On the one hand, any activity that increases the release of these chemicals will help children sustain attention. On the other hand, there is some evidence that children with ADHD may release less dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine following exercise than children without ADHD.

The main lesson so far, then, is that minds and bodies interact. Even though school budgets are suffering, we have to find ways to make sure that we support healthy minds and bodies.