No Running in School?

Dodge ball was out years ago because of it’s dangerous nature. Now some schools in Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, California and South Carolina have banned tag, soccer and touch football. Just this week some Massachusetts schools added themselves to the game-banning list, citing a broader rule against “hitting and inappropriate touching” – WHAT???

A recent article published in USA Today explains how a trend is developing across the country limiting kid’s physical activity in schools. Many districts are banning more and more games in PE and on recess.

Another class bites the dust

To make matters worse many middle schools and high schools are cutting PE from the full year curriculum. ‘The Shape of the Nation’ report, released about a month ago, concluded that most states are failing to provide student’s with adequate physical education. The report showed that the number of students attending a daily PE class is down to 28%! Does this have anything to do with the fact the 1 out of 5 school age kids today are overweight? Along with horrible diets of most kids, the lack of sufficient physical activity is a huge part of the problem.

Many schools cite the need for more academic class time in order to meet the requirements of national testing standards. The irony of it is that cutting PE programs is actually making our student’s test performance worse. A large Canadian study looked at the academic performance of kids split into two groups. One group received one hour of PE class with moderate physical activity during the course of the day, while the other group had academic instruction for that hour.

At the end of the year, the group of kids that had PE outperformed the other group in academic classes for every grade tested. This was true even though the non-PE group received about 15% more classroom instruction time. So does it make sense to cut PE from our schools?

Physical activity is proven to increase attention, improve learning and improve memory. These are all attributes that help kids become better students. Yet our schools continue to cut PE from their curriculum. We must put greater value on physical activity in the school system and find a way to support it.

Sweat or Stress

As the Canadian study suggests, physical activity can actually make you smarter. Not only that, but exercise can help prevent disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and depression. It can even increase your chances of recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Exercise causes a rise in several growth factors in the brain that are responsible for helping brain cells survive and divide into new brain cells, or neurons. One of the brain areas producing new neurons is the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a critical role in learning, memory and attention. Exercise helps new neurons grow in the hippocampus, which helps improve performance on several types of cognitive tasks.

Another important role of the hippocampus is in the response to stress. In fact, studies show that a smaller hippocampus is associated with anxiety disorders and depression. Stress can damage the hippocampus and cause neurons to die, the opposite of what happens when you exercise.

Folks that exercise regularly know that they are much more capable of handling stress throughout their day than they are when they don’t exercise. This is, in part, because exercise and stress have opposite effects on the hippocampus and exercise improves your ‘buffer’ to handle the stress.

Interestingly, anti-depressants work in a similar way. Although, we don’t completely understand the exact mechanism of anti-depressant action, we do know that several classes of anti-depressants increase new neurons in the hippocampus. They do the same thing that exercise does!

Like exercise, anti-depressants also induce new neuron growth in the hippocampus. Psychiatrists have known for a long time that patients experiencing depression respond much better to therapy if they combine it with regular exercise. In some cases, exercise alone is sufficient to alleviate depressive symptoms. Personally, I’d rather see doctors try a prescription for more physical activity and a better diet before they send you to the pharmacist.

How fast is your Brain Aging?

Studies also show that exercise protects the brain from aging and injury. Older adults that regularly exercise perform better in cognitive tasks and have lower rates of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. They also recover stronger from strokes and from accidental brain injury.

One can argue that people who exercise have many factors in their lives that can contribute to these findings. For example, they smoke less, eat better, etc. However, studies in laboratory animals support the idea that exercise alone is protective. Animals that are exercised are protected against traumatic brain injury in laboratory tests and don’t develop the extent of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in model systems.

Studies also show that in addition to exercise’s protective role, it is a valuable therapeutic tool for brain function. Fitness training improves cognitive functions relative to planning, scheduling, task coordination and attention. Adults that exercise have more grey matter, representing more brain cells, than adults that don’t exercise.

We know that on average, adults tend to maintain the lifestyle values that they had as kids. So does it make sense to stand bye and watch schools cut PE and heart-pumping recess activities?

Copyright (c) 2006 The Brain Code LLC