Beyond Phys Ed

How educators can harness the benefits of exercise

An unusual feature of academia is how cognitive psychology, the science that addresses how people learn, is divorced from the practice of teaching and learning. There are many applicable findings in cognitive psychology that teachers remain unaware of because they were not covered in teacher’s college.

How long can students pay attention in class, and how should lessons be structured to capture attention? What is the best way to study? (A good answer: in study sessions distributed across time, involving significant self-testing,1 and using memory strategies like chunking or memory walks.2)

Once students learn information, how can we ensure that this information is put to use in novel situations, and how can we enhance problem solving and critical thinking? There are numerous studies in psychology addressing these questions that, by and large, have not been widely applied in school settings.

These kinds of studies, which directly address learning, are not the only findings in psychology that are applicable to teaching. Learning is influenced by more than what occurs in the classroom, a fact many teachers know through experience. Some students will learn and read a lot at home, others not at all.

The social interactions and behaviour in the classroom will be determined in part by behaviour at home, and these interactions will affect learning. Besides these common-sense examples, there are other outside influences that are significant.

Learning is a function of the brain, and so anything that influences this organ may potentially affect how well a student learns. A student who sleeps four hours a night will likely have reduced attention the next day, for example (but not in some special cases).

Exercise also influences the brain, and has an effect on learning, and the application of exercise findings in learning environments is the focus of my work and this article.

Exercise and schools

The fact that exercise is associated with good health and lower mortality/morbidity rates is commonly known. It would make sense to run exercise programs in schools simply for their health benefits. Exercise, here defined as activities that raise heart rate (i.e. cardiovascular exercise), also has benefits beyond physical health.3 Animal studies indicate angiogenesis, neurogenesis and dendritic growth after exercise;4 essentially, this means there are more connections between the parts of the brain that embody thinking, and oxygen gets to these brain parts more efficiently.

These physical changes are accompanied by cognitive and affective changes. Exercise improves the mood of individuals, and is prescribed by doctors for mood disorders and depression.5 Memory is enhanced to a degree, especially in individuals with clinical issues (exercise helps retain memory faculties in disorders like Alzheimer’s, for example). Attention also improves after exercise, and this aspect of exercise has obvious applications in schools. There is both a short-term “boost” of attention, where individuals who exercise will be better able to attend immediately after exercise (i.e. in the next class), and long-term attention gains, where an exercisers’ ability to attend is generally enhanced, presumably due to long-term changes in the brain that come about as a result of exercise.6

Schools are excellent candidates for exercise programs. There is very little cost associated with starting programs at schools in comparison to other places. Schools often already have teachers on staff with the requisite skills (PE teachers); these teachers need only adapt their skills to programs centered on fitness and not just sports skills. Similarly, schools already have facilities in which exercise can occur.

Exercise is also of maximum benefit in schools. Children who adopt healthy exercise habits have an entire lifetime in which these habits can benefit them positively. Moreover, exercise can be used strategically in schools to benefit students in other areas of learning. For example, exercise immediately before Math or English class can be used to boost learning in these subjects.

Additionally, students with behavioural problems can benefit from exercise while in class.7 Exercise can act as a positive outlet for restlessness or negative feelings, and having “problem students” ride a stationary bike when they are having difficulty with self-control or focus can reduce class disruption and acting out.

Applying exercise in schools

What is exercise? Although this appears to be an uncontroversial question, subjects in laboratory studies are not just performing “exercise”; they are performing a very specific task. For example, subjects may be cycling on stationary bikes.

The results of a specific study are often assumed to generalize across various forms of exercise; this assumption is made because numerous forms of exercise have led to significant results, and the physiological mechanisms that are the hypothesized cause of results would occur across many forms of exercise. But not all forms!

The term “exercise” as it is commonly used in the real world encompasses more than the kinds of cardiovascular exercise examined in the lab. Weightlifting (or resistance training) is certainly a form of exercise and, according to laboratory studies, is beneficial to school-aged children outside of muscle gain – but the benefits of this form of exercise are different than those of cardiovascular exercise. If this kind of exercise is used in a program that is based on cardiovascular exercise, then the expected results may not occur, because the exercise is not of the right form.

Similarly, yoga is sometimes used as a form of exercise in schools, and although it too has benefits, they may not be the same as those of cardiovascular exercise. A teacher might also consider a game like dodge ball to be exercise, but if the students are standing around and not getting their heart rates up, then no exercise is being performed at all.

To get results, the exercise also needs to be done properly. For example, biking is a good form of cardiovascular exercise, but there is a big difference between students biking aimlessly around their school, and students cycling at a brisk pace on a 35-minute bike ride on local trails.

A realistic prospect of sustainability is another important requirement. For example, running five kilometres a day would certainly fulfill any exercise requirement a school program might have, but students are unlikely to perform this exercise over a long period of time.

How much exercise should students be getting in school? How long should they be exercising per day, how intense should that exercise be, how many days a week should the exercise occur? To some degree, the answer to these questions is “as much as possible.”

In practical terms, there is a trade-off between the intensity of the exercise and the likelihood of a student performing it over a long period of time. I would recommend exercise that does not reach the anaerobic zone, but is still relatively intense.

This level of intensity can be measured with heart rate monitors and other objective measures, but is easy to informally test using the talk test. If, during some activity, a teacher can hold a normal conversation with a student, the exercise is not intense enough. If the student can’t respond at all because he or she is sucking wind, then the exercise is too intense. One- or two-word answers to questions indicate a reasonable level of intensity of exercise.

Aiming for this kind of exercise to occur 30 minutes a day, five days a week is a reasonable and significant goal.

Exercise in Schools

To maximize health and learning/behavioural benefits: 

  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise daily.
  • Exercise is best scheduled before classes that are deemed “important” because of a short-term boost in attributes like attention afterwards.
  • If exercise is scheduled before school, make sure that students are not getting less sleep each night because they are waking up earlier; this lack of sleep will counteract the benefits of exercise.
  • If very high-intensity exercise is attempted, it should be performed at the end of the day, so issues like fatigue do not affect class.
  • Use heart rate to determine intensity of exercise, not arbitrary requirements.
  • Dividing students into groups according to fitness levels can ensure that students exercise at the right heart rate level. For example, if biking, there could be a fast group, a medium group, and a slow group, divided according to the biking speed at which the target heart rate is reached.
  • Have a non-disruptive classroom exercise option (like a stationary bike) to help students’ self-regulation.

The key to school exercise programs is ensuring that the exercise actually occurs at the right level for each student. Students are often resistant to exercise initially, especially if they are generally inactive. Exercise programs, if they are not set up correctly, are often highly prejudiced towards these inactive students. The goal of a cardio exercise program is to increase students’ heart rates.

Oftentimes, very little movement is required in order to get heart rates up in obese individuals. If a teacher expects to see these students running for 30 minutes, then they will interpret walking as laziness. If a teacher attempts to force these students to run harder, then the students will enter their anaerobic zone, where exercise feels very unpleasant, and they will almost certainly want to stop, and will hate the exercise. Ensuring that exercise is in the correct heart rate zone for each individual student is a very important factor in ensuring that students maintain exercise.

The other important factor in getting students to exercise is having it be a requirement, like Math or English. Students should be evaluated on the degree to which they get their heart rates up in exercise. Failure in this regard should be treated like failure in any subject testing. This evaluation may seem harsh, but there is a very positive side to this kind of requirement.

Since the focus is only on increased heart rate, any activity that raises students’ heart rates a sufficient amount is possible. Students can suggest any fun activity they can think of, and as long as it is logistically feasible and morally acceptable, it is a candidate to fulfill this requirement. Many sporting activities, swimming, dancing, even video games that use physical movements are potential activities.

Focusing on this end goal of activity makes teaching different from what many educators are used to. Teachers using exercise need to become problem solvers to a degree, and try out activities with students while evaluating how effective they are for that particular group at raising heart rates consistently. What works with some students may not with others, and teachers need to go with the activities that work.

En Bref – Les psychologues étudient depuis longtemps les processus d’apprentissage et ces études peuvent souvent être appliquées en éducation. L’exercice est l’un des phénomènes étudiés. L’exercice régulier peut non seulement améliorer l’état de santé des élèves, mais aussi leurs résultats scolaires. Par exemple, l’exercice fait avant un cours peut donner lieu à de meilleurs résultats éducatifs à ce cours grâce à une attention plus soutenue et au comportement mieux contrôlé des élèves. Pour bénéficier au maximum de l’exercice cardiovasculaire, les enseignants doivent veiller à ce que l’activité soit suffisamment intensive pour profiter à l’élève, sans l’être trop et devenir insoutenable. Cet important niveau d’intensité devrait constituer l’objectif d’un programme d’exercices à l’école. Toute forme raisonnable d’activités atteignant cet objectif convient à un tel programme.

Original Photo: courtesy College of Charleston

First published in Education Canada, September 2015

1 For an overview of learning techniques in teaching, see John Dunlosky et al., “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14 (2013): 4-58.

2 A summary of memory strategies: Daniel T. Willingham, “What Will Improve a Student’s Memory,” American Educator (Winter 2008-2009): 17-25.

3 A good starting point on the benefits of exercise: John Ratey and Eric Hagerman, Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain (New York: Little, Brown, 2008).

4 See for example H. van Praag et al., “Running Enhances Neurogenesis and Learning, and Long Term Potentiation in Mice,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96 (1999): 13427-13431.

5 See for example James Blumenthal, “New Frontiers in Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine: Comparative effectiveness of exercise and medication in treating depression,” Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine 78, Supplement 1 (2011), S35-43.

6 For the acute effects of exercise on cognition, one meta-analysis is Y. K. Chang et al., “The Effects of Acute Exercise on Cognitive Performance: A meta-analysis,” Brain Research, Vol.1453 (2012): 87-101; for the long-term effects of exercise on cognition, one meta-analysis is P. J. Smith et al., “Aerobic Exercise and Neurocognitive Performance: A meta-analytic review of randomized controlled trials,”Psychosomatic Medicine 72, No. 3 (2010): 239-52.

7 There have been a number of reviews of the use of exercise in schools, for example the Center for Disease Control (CDC) white paper, The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (July 2010).

Meet the Expert(s)

Christopher Gilbert

Dr. Christopher Gilbert researched the use of learning strategies and the function of the prefrontal cortex at McMaster University and graduated with a PhD in psychology. He is co-founder, with Drs. Lindsay Shaw Thornton and Alex Thornton, of RTSG Neuroscience, where together they have consulted with schools and communities on translating academic findings from psychology and education into working educational practice.

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