Physical Activity Strategies for Improved Cognition: The Mind/body Connection

By Fede, Marybeth H. | Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, November-December 2012 | Go to article overview
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Physical Activity Strategies for Improved Cognition: The Mind/body Connection


Fede, Marybeth H., Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators


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Whether an administrator, faculty member, classroom teacher, or specials teacher (Art, Music, and Physical Education), everyone wants students test scores to improve and know that they contributed to it. These improved scores validate the roles and influence of educators and administrators. The purpose of this article is two-fold: 1) to assist school faculty and administration make the important connection between physical activity/movement and improved cognition, and attendance and a decrease in behavioral issues (Berg, 2010); 2) to provide strategies and techniques for classroom teachers and physical educators to understand the role physical activity/movement plays in the classroom and the gymnasium. Collaboration between these two groups is paramount. Physical activity/ movement should be recognized and utilized for its full potential benefits in both the classroom and gymnasium.

Physical Activity/Movement Defined

According to Blaydes (2000), there are three distinctions of movement that need to be addressed when reviewing brain research: 1) movement, 2) physical activity, and 3) exercise. Movement is the navigation of one's environment. Physical activity is any movement of the skeletal muscle that expends energy. Exercise is physical activity that is planned and repetitive, with an increase in physical fitness as the goal. The two aspects of movement that benefit learners most are physical fitness and the use of kinesthetic activities to anchor academic concepts resulting in cognitive reinforcement. According to Blaydes (2000), "movement prepares the brain for optimal learning" (p. 2).

Early research dealing with physical activity and cognition showed that physical activity enriches the learning environment; physical fitness is positively related to academic performance; and aerobic fitness aids cognition (Diamond, 1998; Gage, 1999; Gardner, 1983; Jensen, 1998). More recent research has documented the positive benefits physical activity/ movement and exercise have on cognition. In 2008, Ratey introduced the world to Spark." The New Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain. He began prescribing various types of physical activity and exercise to his patients as treatment for everything from anxiety, stress, and depression to Alzheimer's disease. He also researched the effect of aerobic exercise on academic performance. With regular and prolonged aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or bike riding, new neurological pathways in the brain are created, which benefit young and old alike.

Movement differentiates instruction, increases retention, motivation, attention and engagement in the learning process, and should be utilized for its full potential benefits in both the classroom and in the gymnasium (Lengel & Kuczala, 2010; Ratey, 2008). NASPE released a position statement titled Physical Education is Critical to Educating the Whole Child, which states: "Research confirms that students perform better in school when they are emotionally and physically healthy. They miss fewer classes, are less likely to engage in risky or antisocial behavior, concentrate more and attain higher test scores" (NASPE, 2011, p. 1).

One out of every three children who were born in 2003 will develop type 2 diabetes (Olshansky, 2005). The combination of diet and physical activity can help improve the health of our youth and combat this disturbing trend. Providing students with high quality physical education and nutrition programs, however, is only the beginning in solving physical inactivity and the resulting hypokinetic diseases. Beyond the classroom, First Lady Michele Obama's Let's Move! campaign and AAHPERD's Let's Move in School initiative both aim to end childhood obesity and the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Exercise is also of extreme importance, as it improves learning on three levels: 1) it optimizes the mindset to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; 2) it prepares and encourages nerve cells to log in new information; and 3) it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus (Ratey, 2008).

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