School is an unnatural environment. The problem with sitting still in a classroom is that physical inactivity shrivels your brain. To keep your grey matter operating optimally, you need to break a sweat. To build your brain, you need to work your body.
According to John J. Ratey, M.D., exercise improves learning in three ways:
- It helps to improve alertness, attention and motivation
- It makes it easier for brain cells to bind to one another, which is important for learning
- It helps create new nerve cells
Dr. Ratey is the author of Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. This fascinating book explains how physical activity creates biological changes that make brain cells form connections with each other. For the brain to learn, new connections must be made.
How Brain Cells Work
The brain is made of a hundred billion nerve cells (neurons) that send messages in the form of electrical signals from the brain to the rest of the body. Synapses are the spaces between neurons where messages are carried from one cell to the next by chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Ratey says that when one of these chemicals delivers a signal between two cells that haven’t “spoken” before, it creates a new connection. The more activity between nerve cells, the better the connection and the easier it is for the signal to be passed from one cell to another. It’s just like talking on your cell phone: if you have a strong connection, it’s easy to communicate clearly. If the connection is bad, you might not be able to understand what your BFF is saying.
The research cited by Ratey shows that if there’s a lot of activity between cells, they manufacture more building material for the synapses. This building up of the structure allows new information to stick as a memory. When you learn something new, the memory physically becomes part of your brain because cells change to store that information. The brain is adaptable and can be molded by new experience the way that a muscle can be strengthened by lifting weights.
How Exercise Helps Your Brain
Any movement more complicated than walking has to be learned, and it challenges the brain says Ratey. Repetition of an activity, especially physical activity, causes synapses to make stronger connections. Exercise counts as new experience as far as the brain is concerned. Aerobic activity balances neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain, creates new blood vessels that deliver components needed for growth, and creates new cells.
When you do exercise with complex motor movement (like dancing or karate), you’re also building the parts of the brain that organize mental and physical activity. The more complicated the movements, the better the connections. “Even though these circuits are created through movement, they can be recruited by other areas and used for thinking,” states Ratey in his chapter entitled Learning.
Fit Kids are Smart Kids
Experts recommend that kids at school participate in at least one hour of physical activity every day because it improves memory, concentration, and processing speed. An experiment at an American high school showed that students in literacy classes held immediately following PE class consistently performed better than those in the same classes held later in the day.
The California Department of Education found that students with higher fitness scores also have higher test scores. kids who passed minimum fitness requirements in six areas (including measures of strength, flexibility, endurance and body fat) scored, on average, twice as well on academic tests as their unfit peers.
You can manage your brain with exercise. If you’re stressed out because you have tests coming up, your ability to focus and study well will be reduced. Exercise reduces stress while at the same time increasing your brain’s ability to learn and remember new material.
So how can you harness the power of exercise to improve your grades? If possible, schedule PE classes right before your most difficult subjects. When you get home from school, take a brisk walk or a swim before settling in to do your homework. Instead of studying all night before a big exam, get a good night’s rest (sleep also enhances learning!), then go for a jog just before your test.
Physical activity has the power to transform the mind as well as the body. Aside from all of the physical benefits, exercise helps you manage anxiety and improve your ability to concentrate and learn. So what are you waiting for? Get moving!