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Exercising the Brain

Exercising the Brain


I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual Teacher’s Association for Physical and Health Education conference held in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. And, although the 3-hour scenic ferry ride mixed with the beautiful October weather and the delicious fresh lobster all played a part in my decision to attend, it was the guest speaker at this year’s provincial conference that enticed me to make the trip. His name is Dr. John Ratey and I can assure you he did not disappoint.


Dr. Ratey, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has authored several books and over 60 peer reviewed articles on the topics of Aggression, Autism, ADHD, and other issues in neuropsychiatry. His most recent book, entitled, SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain has quickly become a cornerstone in new age physical education programs around the world. In Spark, Dr. Ratey discusses the critical importance of engaging the mind through physical activity. The success of SPARK has generated a great deal of further study in the field of physical activity and it has consequently begun a revolution within the field of education. And as good as the book is, it turns out that Dr. Ratey in person is even more convincing.


Over a span of 3 hours and detailing several case studies from schools all over North America and Asia, Dr. Ratey successfully explained that the only true way we as a species can learn is by growing brain cells (Neurogenesis) and the BEST POSSIBLE WAY KNOWN TO MAN to achieve this process is by exercising! Dr. Ratey suggests that as little as 10 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity can engage the “Learning part of the brain” for up to 3 hours. As a physical educator, hearing these words from a Harvard Doctor is music to my ears.


In an education system where Math and Language Arts assessments seem to dictate a school’s success, Physical Education oftentimes seems to get put on the back burner. Yes, we all can agree that our children need to get their “play” time and that the fight against obesity and other diseases related to poor health is important but what we do not often associate Physical Education with is higher academic achievement…until now.


Without going into the scientific details of the matter, imagine that our students’ brains have the physical ability to grow bigger and stronger. Evidence suggests that with this specific brain growth one’s decision making improves and impulsive behavior decreases. Our students’ ability to sit patiently and focus improves as well. Now imagine that the greatest way to maximize this effect takes only a few simple ingredients: An increased Heart Rate in a fun social environment that promotes skill development… Sound familiar? According to Dr. Ratey, this can all become a reality with increased Physical Education time during a typical school week.



Unfortunately many schools do not have the luxury of offering physical education for all students every day of the week. This in Dr. Ratey’s eyes is a monumental flaw in today’s

Education system. This is why his priority is not to convince Physical Education teachers of these scientific facts, but rather TO PERSUADE CLASSROOM TEACHERS to embrace our

students’ need for movement. If a child is struggling to sit still in his or her chair, it is more than likely not because the student wishes to annoy, but because he or she simply needs to stand up and move. Dr. Ratey’s message is clear, “Our kids are not getting any smarter sitting in chairs in classrooms”. Dr. Ratey adds that for every time a classroom teacher pleads with a child to sit still in his or her chair we rarely see an improvement in the overall behavior of the student. This is perhaps a thought that more classroom teachers need to embrace in order to see positive results.


What does this all mean for the hardworking classroom teacher attempting to cover all necessary areas of the curriculum in a limited amount of time? To put it simply, if we are indeed attempting to teach the WHOLE CHILD without considering the positive impact of exercise and movement on our students’ brains, then we are ignoring a powerful learning tool that we can all benefit from…physical activity.


I implore all teachers and administrators at all grade levels to read SPARK and work together with their school physical education specialist on strategies to combine movement and physical activity in their daily lessons (a quick online search for ‘Energizing Brain Breaks’, ‘Classroom Fitness Blasts’ and ‘Action-Based Learning’ is a good starting point). I often hear teachers say that knowledge is power, and we now KNOW that exercise can promote learning. Keeping this in mind, both the P.E specialist and the classroom teacher have a role to play in continuing the learning-exercise revolution.


Alex Yaychuk

Physical Education Specialist

Nashwaaksis Middle School

Fredericton, NB


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