Exercise Helps Students in the Classroom

Increasingly, researchers are finding that brain activity and brain development are enhanced by physical exercise. It now appears that exercise can help kids learn at school.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Today in Your Health, we have two reports on how exercise and nutrition help kids pay attention as they return to school. We start with exercise. It helps to build muscles, strength, and endurance - you know that. Some researchers say it also can set the stage for learning. NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports on mounting evidence that walking and running help with things like writing and reading.

Mr. ALBERTO MARTIN (Tennis Coach): Okay. Tess, go for it. Watch this. She - look how she keeps her racket steady. Right there, shuffle, and now you're going to backpedal. And...

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:

To some researchers, these kids aren't just practicing tennis - they're also readying their brains for academic pursuit. Tennis coach Alberto Martin agrees.

Mr. MARTIN: You know, you have to really concentrate when you do these exercises. You have to focus for a long periods of time.

NEIGHMOND: At UCLA, Dr. Antronette Yancey heads the Center to Eliminate Health Disparities. One of her goals is to get kids from all kinds of backgrounds physically fit because study show they fidget less and focus more.

Dr. ANTRONETTE YANCEY (Director, Center to Eliminate Health Disparities): Kids pay better attention to their subjects when they've been active. Kids are less likely to be disruptive in terms of their classroom behavior when they're active. Kids feel better about themselves, have higher self-esteem, less depression, less anxiety - all of those things can impair academic performance and attentiveness.

NEIGHMOND: Yancey points to a recent study where elementary school kids were divided into three groups. The groups that exercised everyday, she says, also performed best in the classroom.

Dr. YANCEY: They took time away from academic subjects for physical education in this case, and they found that, across the board, that did not hurt the kid's performance on the academic tests. And in fact, in the condition in which the trained teachers provided the physical education, the children actually did better on language, reading, and the basic battery of tests.

NEIGHMOND: Over the past two decades, schools have cut back on P.E. in an effort to increase academic scores. Dr. John Ratey calls that a tragedy. Ratey is a psychiatrist and Harvard professor. He's written extensively on the benefits of exercise, which he describes as food for the brain. Ratey says animal studies show that exercise stimulates development of new brain cells, in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus

Dr. JOHN RATEY (Harvard University): ...this very sort of sensitive plastic area that is very, very key to our memory and learning capacity.

NEIGHMOND: The biological mechanism for how exercise might stimulate new brain cells isn't known, but it's clear that exercise increases blood flow to the brain and that delivers oxygen and nutrients. Jeff Lipman is neuroscientist at Harvard University. No doubt, he says, that exercise is good for the body, including the brain. But he says brain cells and the connections between them are strengthened, not by general physical exercise, but by very specific experiences. After all, we're born with literally trillions of brain connections, so for example, starting tennis at an early age or starting to read early, strengthens particular connections. Lipman:

Mr. JEFF LIPMAN (Neuroscientist, Harvard University): A large part of the experience-based changes that occur in brains of young animals, and people as well, is not the making of new connections, but actually the whittling away of all but a sub-set of those connections that we're going to use as adults.

NEIGHMOND: So if you want to be an expert tennis player or mathematician, start early. As for physical exercise, animal studies are ongoing with rodents and with monkeys, to determine exactly how physical exercise might help the brain develop. Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

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