RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. And if you begin your morning at a computer and end your day there, you might find that it leaves you feeling lethargic and you might want to consider short bursts of physical activity to get the energy flowing. In Your Health today we have two reports about mini exercise breaks. We begin with a look at schools in Charleston, South Carolina where teachers are using movements in hopes of improving learning.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: If modern society has done a good job of engineering physical activity out of our lives, then Charleston's Mitchell Elementary is doing its best to put movement back in.
Unidentified Children: Six times seven is 42. Six times eight is 48.
AUBREY: Take, for example, these fourth graders practicing multiplication as they jump rope, or down the hall, where Shavonna Coakley's sixth grade class begins a poetry lesson.
Ms. SHAVONNA COAKLEY (Teacher): All right. Let's go. Stand up. Look at someone who's sitting. Thank you. And now we (unintelligible)
Unidentified Male: (Unintelligible) like repeating a poem.
AUBREY: Coakley's class has already been to recess and P.E., but now it's mid-afternoon, the time of day when kids start to zone out.
Ms. COAKLEY: (Unintelligible)
AUBREY: To turn up the energy Coakley gets all the students on their feet circling around the room to the beat of a refrain.
Ms. COAKLEY: (Unintelligible) y'all.
Unidentified Children: I believe I can fly. I believe I can fly. I believe I can fly. I believe I can fly.
AUBREY: As feet glide and limbs move about, I asked two boys in the class, Michael Lancaster and Raheem Edding, whether all this feels chaotic or distracting.
Mr. MICHAEL LANCASTER (Student): No. It's better to stand up, because, like, we're trying to get our blood moving and trying to like keep going and learning.
Mr. RAHEEM EDDING (Student): And it keeps us from going to sleep in class.
AUBREY: Does that happen sometimes?
Mr. EDDING: Yeah.
AUBREY: So if ten minutes of moving around the classroom at moderate intensity seems to agree with lots of these kids, what's actually happening in their bodies?
Dr. JOHN RATEY (Harvard University): What's happening in the body is their heart rate's increasing and blood flow is changing, and they're actually activating their brain differently than when they're sitting down.
AUBREY: John Ratey is a psychiatrist at Harvard University, who's taken an interest in the burgeoning movement to overhaul physical education in schools. His take is that exercise can't make kids smarter, but it can make kids more ready to learn. He explains after moderate exercise the brain seems to work a little more efficiently.
Dr. RATEY: So you're seeing an increase in neurotransmitters that we're all so familiar with. Dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine will increase almost immediately. And…
AUBREY: And these are hormones that are related to mood regulation.
Dr. RATEY: These are hormones related to mood regulation, to attention, and in general help the brain be in a better state of equilibrium.
AUBREY: Ratey says since the experiment in the Charleston schools is new, it's too soon to say if these mini-classroom initiatives will result in any measurable differences in achievement scores. But to his mind they're a step in the right direction. He points to schools in Kansas City and the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, where improvements in academic performance have been linked to increased physical fitness.
Ms. COAKLEY: All right. Get to your desk. Get to your desk and look at my hand. Should I go out front?
Unidentified Children: Yes.
AUBREY: Teacher Shavonna Coakley says her take is that the movement-based lessons she's experimenting with do seem to help hold her kids' attention, at least temporarily. But she says not all of her students have taken to it.
Ms. COAKLEY: I would say about three or four of my gentlemen, well, they would just rather me just stand at that board and just show them exactly what I'm talking about.
AUBREY: Those might be the kids who pay attention easily anyway. But among kids who struggle to focus, the exercises seem to make a significant difference. Researcher Matt Mahar studied exercise breaks at one school in North Carolina and he found that the students who had the most trouble staying focused before the exercise program started were the ones who seemed to benefit the most.
Mr. MATT MAHAR (Researcher): Think of these kids. They were on task less than half the time to start with. And after the one 10-minute activity, they were now on task more than 70 percent of the time.
AUBREY: At least during the few weeks that the students were observed. Mahar says the idea seems to be taking off. Eighty-five percent of school districts in North Carolina report that some teachers are giving movement a try.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.