Asher MacLeod educational psychology article .pdf
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Exercising the Mind
(By Exercising the Body)
Making the case for movement in schools
By Asher MacLeod
In a time of intense financial constraints in
our school system, many districts view PE
classes as an easy thing to slash. Who needs
that anyway? It has nothing to do with
learning as it not an academic subject.
Many schools are shortening recess also,
apparently to devote more time to classes.
At the middle school where I work, students
are inside the school from 7:30 – 2:30,
working flat out with only a twenty-minute
break for lunch. I can barely rush through
my lunch in twenty minutes (and that’s
when I’ve locked myself in the classroom to
be alone!). By keeping students enclosed
and in class all day, we are prioritizing
curriculum and cutbacks over creativity,
relationships, and health. We are not just
making our children’s bodies unhealthy and
lazy; we are making their brains unhealthy
and lazy. Work and play can go hand in
hand; the studies clearly show this. In
addition there are many things you can do
in your school to join the two.
Teachers often complain that their students
are unmotivated and despondent during
their classes. This is due to many factors
including sleep deprivation, high pressure,
and lack of support. These factors may be
beyond our control, but their effects can be
reduced. If only there were a quick and easy
way to help students to learn. And there is.
As Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist
John Ratey put it, “Exercise is the single
best thing you can do for your brain in
terms of mood, memory, and learning” (as
cited in Kotz & Haupt, 2012). Exercise is
not just another way to set up a positive
learning environment; it is the best way.
It is important to understand the specific benefits exercise has on the brain. One you are
certainly familiar with is that exercise increases the amount of oxygen to the brain. Few
know that exercise grows brain cells (Van Praag et al., 1999) and provides your body’s
control center with chemical care packages called neurotropins. Biology shows that physical
activity provide benefits in social and emotional skills, but also, importantly, in academic
achievement. One of the clearest ways to highlight this point is Terrence Dwyer’s study. He
found that the benefit from physical activity was so great, that even when an experimental
group of student spent four times as long exercising than the rest of their class (and thus
much less time in class), there was no loss in academic test scores (Dwyer et al., 2001).
Students are increasingly living in a world of video games and daytime television. Couple
that with P.E. being viewed as an unimportant frivolity, and we have a recipe for disaster.
It’s more important than ever that we guarantee our students the right to recess, physical
education classes, and involve them with movement in their regular classes.
Now we understand a part of why working out is so essential for the brain’s development
over the long term. What is just as important is knowing the short-term benefits on a
person’s emotions. For example, did you know students can get high on learning? When the
body exercises, it releases endorphins, which trigger a euphoric like feeling (WebMD).
Exercise can reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression which all link to student
demotivation. By exercising during the school day, we can motivate these students to learn.
Although it may sound difficult to incorporate
physical activity into your lessons, in reality it is
surprisingly easy. There are many ways to do this,
one being beginning your lessons with energizers
(Mo, 2010) Stretch, jog on the spot for a minute,
or do jumping jacks with your class. You could
also use these techniques in the middle of the
lesson to get unmotivated or restless students
back on track. It will be a pleasant surprise for
them (exercise is fun) and for you (Wow! That
technique actually worked!).
One other way movement can movement can be utilized in the classroom is teach and
reinforce content (Jensen, 2005 p.65). For example, a class can be taken for a walk while they
are taught a new concept for a change. Or, you can watch the delight as your students roleplay through movement; whizzing around the classroom as they learn about water molecules
evaporating into gas when heated. Kinesthetic and active learning are memorable and
emotional, and a highly effective way to ensure retention of important facts and concepts.
As you have no doubt gathered by now, the intellectual benefits of exercise have been largely
a mystery. Before I performed in-depth research on this topic, I’d heard constantly how
excellent it is for one’s physical health, reducing obesity, cholesterol etc. I knew exercise
could help you improve your social skills, yet had no idea of the long-lasting and shocking
benefits it has on the human brain, and students’ academic abilities and results.
I vow to use activities like this to get students moving and thinking in my classroom. I hope
you will join me, no matter what subject you teach, in using the uncomplicated researchbased methods I’ve outlined today. I will also be encouraging and promoting P.E. and recess,
which should be rights, rather than privileges for every student, and encouraging my students
to exercise at home, especially before they get to work. Let’s get our kids moving!
Dwyer, T., Sallis, J., Blizzard, L., Lazarus, R., & Dean, K. (2001). Relation of academic performance to physical
activity and fitness in children. Pediatric Exercise Science, 13, 225-237.
Exercise and Depression: Endorphins, Reducing Stress, and More. (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved April 30, 2014,
Jensen, E. (2005). Movement and Learning. Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed., ). Alexandria, Va.:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Kotz, D., & Haupt, A. (2012, March 7). 7 Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise - US News. . Retrieved April 29,
2014, from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/diet-fitness/slideshows/7-mind-blowing-benefits-of-exercise
Mo, E. (2010, April 12). Studying the link between exercise and learning. The Chart RSS. Retrieved April 30,
2014, from http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2010/04/12/studying-the-link-between-exercise-and-learning/
Van Praag, H., Kempermann, G., & Gage, F. H. (1999, March). Running increases cell proliferation and
neurogenesis in the adult mouse dentate gyrus. Nature Neuroscience, 2(3), 266-270.
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