Let’s Get Moving: Exercise Linked to Learning

I have recently stumbled across a very interesting educational research named Dr. John Ratey, who is an avid believer that exercising and brainpower are undoubtedly connected. I thought this tied into our class this week because we had a presentation about inquiry projects presented to us by three physical education majors, and our class had tons of questions about how they would incorporate those projects into the their classroom. That got me thinking about how I could incorporate exercise into my English classrooms, as that seems as a challenge to me.

The reason I also find this topic so intriguing is because throughout high school I did not consider exercise important. He is the author of the book “Spark-The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” and says that physical education turns our brains on. Dr. Ratey believes exercise optimizes the brain function in three different ways:

  1. Makes learners ready to learn, improves attention and decreases stress and anxiety levels and improves motivation
  2. Enriches the environment in brain with nutrients and neuro transmitters which make brain cells ready to learn
  3. Promotes growth of brain cells

Obviously no one (in my opinion) is going to argue that exercise is good for you – it is good for every single part of your body, your health, your skin, your mood and a great way to keep in shape. Weight gain can and will eventually take a toll on our brains. Dr. Ratey says an interview on The Agenda with Steve Paikin that it isn’t that children of this generation aren’t as intelligent; they just aren’t ready to learn because it is easier to not try. Why would someone come home and read literature when they could watch Netflix or play video games? I will be honest, in my spare time I would much rather watch my favorite shows or lay in bed and watch a movie over reading.

So how much and how could we apply this in schools? Dr. Ratey explains that it would be ideal to break up physical activity throughout the day because our brain changes so quickly and eventually it will wear off after awhile so doing one big chunk will be less effective. Forty-Five minutes of solid moderate physical activity would be ideal. Activities like hockey or games are just as useful – as long as the activity gets your heart rate up. Incorporating games or something your students want to do will be very helpful, however I would have been the student who would have rather just ran on the treadmill and that is perfectly fine too. He uses Finland as a model we should take into consideration. Finland is performing at the highest academic level, and Dr. Ratey believes that it could be explained because they are using physical movement in every one of their classes. They have hour-long classes and they only do 45 minutes of instruction or activities and then for the other 15 minutes they are doing exercise or play.

When is the best time of day? Dr. Ratey encourages physical activity to be done earlier in the day – the earlier the better is his opinion. Obviously this helps people and especially students wake up and get them moving and involved.

What really made me interested in this idea and what Dr. Ratey explains as his “ah-ha” moment, if you will, is a study of a school in Chicago; Naperville Central High. They created a fantastic physical education program, which took years and years in the making, however it basically eventually consisted of ALL students in physical activity for the full gym class EVERY day, incorporating different exercises and drills. For example, they took out the “game” or “sport” aspect out of the program for a while because they were seeing that the kids who needed the exercise were straying away from those activities and not trying and the children who didn’t need to exercise and were athletic took over and were scoring the highest. I would absolutely agree that this happens and agree with it. My Phys. Ed. classes from grade 7 – 12 were ALL sports and games based, and I hated it. I would actually just not go to class because every day we played dodge ball or floor hockey. Of course for the athletic kids who were playing these games in the gym at lunch hour or after school, but I had zero interest in those activities because I actually didn’t know how to play and didn’t feel comfortable playing with more athletic people.

This program caught Dr. Ratey’s attention because he heard there were zero obese children in this school after implementing the program for several years, which is an incredible thing if you think about our society and especially American’s statistics about obese children. However, what really made him excited about this was that he saw this school’s test scores for the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics/Science). Every country takes these tests every 3 years, and this school division took this test as a country and scored #1 in the ENTIRE world for science and #6 in math.

Not only are students and teachers seeing academic results, but also amazing behavior results. I could go on and on about these statistics about physically active students and behavior versus those who are not active and their behavior issues, however in Dr. Ratey’s Ted Talk at Manhattan Beach he discusses in depth about the amazing results that he has experienced, which is perhaps a post for another week. It really interests me as my minor is inclusive education and the research Dr. Ratey has done with behavior students is really impressive.

How would I apply it as an English teacher? As an English teacher, I obviously cannot ensure or engage my students in 45 minutes of physical activity in my class. However, after reading Dr. Ratey’s findings, I strongly believe that there is a scientific and legitimate connection between exercise and the brain. Therefore I will be an advocate for ensuring that I would never take away their recesses/ breaks or gym periods from them as punishment. If someone needs a break and needs to taka a walk, I will be supportive of that. I will allow my students to have fidgets and tools to help them.


John Ratey, M.D. http://www.johnratey.com

Sparking Life, Power Your Brain Through Exercise http://www.sparkinglife.org

TEDx Talks. “Run, Jump, Learn! How Exercise can Transform our Schools: John J.

Ratey, MD at TEDxManhattanBeach” YouTube. YouTube. 18 November 2012. Web. 21 January 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBSVZdTQmDs

The Agenda with Steve Paikin. “Dr. John Ratey on Exercise & Learning.” YouTube. YouTube. 11 November 2009. Web. 21 January 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5-kbfnCq6M


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