It was morning, the first day. I cranked up Zaho. One of my daughters pulled out her hula hoop and began a twenty-minute set of hooping and singing. The other daughter laced up her running shoes, opened the front door, and was off. I packed a snack for both of them, and rinsed the dishes that had held a high-protein breakfast. It was the least we could do to get ready for their first day of a week full of annual standardized testing.
In another town, my girls’ grandparents were praying for them, which I understand is a grandparently kind of response that wanted to call on the highest powers possible to make things go well. But I was also aware that if someone dared ask for external miracles, maybe we should first embrace the built-in miracles we can have every day.
Exercise is one of those miracles. It affects so many aspects of our brain and being that I want to do a six-part series to discuss its amazing effects on everything from aging to ADHD, from anxiety to depression and addiction.
But today let’s just talk about exercise, the brain, and learning.
According to John J. Ratey, M.D., exercise improves learning on three levels:
1. It creates a good mindset by improving alertness, attention and motivation.
2. It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another.
3. It spurs the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus.
Exercise manages these miracles by pushing important chemical factors through the blood-brain barrier. It also unleashes something that is already happily waiting in the brain, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). And BDNF is like Miracle Grow for the brain, notes brain scientist John Medina.
One school district in Naperville, Illinois, has taken the miracle of exercise very seriously. They launched a program that focuses on fitness instead of sports (with sports, there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting to play). And they’ve made it a point to schedule this fitness program at Zero Hour, before students are expected to learn about everything from alliteration to the Table of Elements.
The good news? Kids are getting fit, and test scores have risen.
Needless to say, since my girls and I learned this, there’s a lot more hula hooping and running going on at my house. After all, if I can give my kids a miracle, why wouldn’t I do that every day?
For more on the subject of exercise and the brain, check out this wonderfully amusing and informative quick video from John Medina. It may make you want to get one of those bouncy-ball horses you had when you were a kid. (Mine was red. )
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