Kids brains need exercise to be able to learn.

I had heard on the grapevine that our daughter’s school was introducing some changes for those girls entering year 11 (15 and 16 year olds) in 2011. The amount of physical education or “recreation” time allocated on the timetable is to be reduced from 5 periods over six days to just two. Roughly this equates to two lots of 40 minutes. Because it is a 6-day cycle then some weeks the girls may actually only get one period of activity.

I telephoned the school to seek clarification on whether what I had heard was correct. I was informed that yes it was, that is had been a difficult decision and not undertaken lightly. What was the reason for this? A decision has been taken to allocate more class-work time to teachers. All girls will now be studying six subjects, and this will enable the school to fall “into line” with other educational establishments. I was reminded that all parents of the school had an expectation for their daughters to perform well academically, and that this initiative would help the girls achieve that desired outcome.

It would appear that these educators are going down the track of thinking that more classroom time will equate to a couple of extra marks in the TEE. Worse still, this school is not isolated in its way of thinking as other schools have apparently for similar curricular and administrative reasons have chosen to abandon or reduce the amount of physical exercise in the weekly timetable for their students.

I was informed the girls would have the opportunity to participate in physical exercise after school. Yeah right. That might work for those girls who are sufficiently motivated to do so. But what of the others who may have other after school commitments, whether it is music, drama, a part time job or just sheer large volume of homework? What about those girls who don’t particularly like exercise and are more than happy to have a very valid reason not to have to do it?

Our society is becoming increasingly sedentary. Our society is becoming increasingly obese. Both these factors are contributing to a rise in early death. In the States one in three people are expected to develop type two diabetes, which will shorten their lifespan by 10 to 15 years. Girls particularly those in their young teens are easily turned off exercise. Once that habit is lost it is highly unlikely they will return to sport and exercise after they have left school.

Importantly there is also an abundance of research available which has revealed the importance of exercise for learning and memory and for young brains especially.

In the 1990’s Dr Fred Gage and colleagues at the Salk Institute San Diego showed that human and animal brains could produce new brain cells. This process is called neurogenesis. They then demonstrated that exercise increases this.

Exercise fundamentally changes the structure of the brain and affects thinking. Doing more exercise will not turn you into a genius, but even a modest increase in physical activity will help to increase new brain cell production. It needs to be aerobic exercise as well. This stimulates an increase in the blood flow to the brain and encourages new capillary networks to form. This will allow more oxygen and essential nutrients to reach the brain but it also allows various growth factors to affect the brain creating new neurons and new brain connections.

Exercise has now been shown to stimulate the production of a number of brain proteins one of which is appropriately called Noggin. This works as an antagonist to another brain protein called BMP, which dampens down new brain cell formation. More Noggin, more brain cell production. Exercise also raises the amount of BDNF a factor which assists new brain cells to survive, mature and integrate into existing neural pathways.

A recent study in Illinois looked at the brains of 9 and 10 year old children. They found that those who were the fittest (based on treadmill tests) scored better on cognitive tests. All the kids were from the same demographics, socio-economic background, body mass index etc. MRI scans of their brains showed that the fitter the child, the larger the area of their brain involved in their ability to maintain attention and executive control.

A second study again in Illinois, using a similar age group of children used MRI brain scans as well, to look at the size of their hippocampi, the area of the brain associated with memory and learning. This study showed that the fittest children had heavier hippocampi, the area of the brain associated with this type of thinking. The most physically fit children did better on memory tests, in particular on tests of relational memory where they had to remember and integrate various types of information

Interestingly Professor C Hillman from Illinois has reported results indicating that undertaking 20 minutes of walking before a test raised the results of the scores, even if the child was otherwise unfit or overweight.

Somehow as parents, we have to get the message through to our schools that their current path of just adding more class time will actually work against our children's ability to learn, unless it is paired with aerobic exercise.

It looks as if it will be up to us as parents to stand up to the school establishments and tell them that in this instance they are just plain wrong. Lets get our kids back in a learning environment that will not only assist their ability to do well academically, but also keep them mentally and physically healthy.


Laura Chaddock, Kirk I. Erickson, Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, Jennifer S. Kim, Michelle W. Voss, Matt VanPatter, Matthew B. Pontifex, Lauren B. Raine, Alex Konkel, Charles H. Hillman. A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume and memory performance in preadolescent children. Brain Research, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.08.049

American Heart Association (2010, March 4). Students' physical fitness associated with academic achievement; organized physical activity.

Chomitz et al. Is There a Relationship Between Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement? Positive Results From Public School Children in the Northeastern United States. Journal of School Health, 2009; 79 (1): 30 DOI: 10.1111/j.1746-1561.2008.00371.x

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (1999, November 10). Exercise Improves Learning And Memory.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain Ratey, J. MD [Little, Brown and Company (January 10, 2008)]

And an interesting website