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Learn how exercise benefits the brain

This is an excerpt from Learning Through Movement and Music by Debby Mitchell, GeoMotion Group & Inc..

How Exercise Benefits the Brain

Jean Blaydes • Debby Mitchell

Why do we exercise? Some people exercise to lose weight. Others exercise to prevent disease. Some exercise just to feel better or to be healthy. One of the reasons we should exercise is for brain health.

Exercise benefits the brain even before it benefits the body. The brain does not store its own fuel, nor does it produce its own fuel. The brain relies on the body to get its needed fuel—oxygen and glucose—to the brain. The healthier and more physically fit the body is, the more efficiently the brain functions. This is because exercise changes the brain at a molecular
level by

  • growing new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis;
  • producing BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor), nicknamed the fertilizer for the brain;
  • strengthening secondary dendritic branching that increases memory retrieval; and
  • improving mood by balancing the neurotransmitters endorphins, dopamine, cortisol, and serotonin.

The brain is a complex structure. More parts of the brain “light up,” or are used, when a person is moving or physically active. See the figure, The Human Brain, for some basic information on the anatomy of the

How Exercise Benefits the Brain

Exercise creates the optimal environment for neural plasticity, the ability of the brain to change. Exercise puts the brain and body into balance naturally by regulating brain chemicals that control mood and responses to stress. Research on the brain reveals how exercise can aid in learning and cognition (Ratey 2008):

Improved Brain Function (Medina 2008)

  • Increased capacity for learning with the growth of an estimated 9,000 cells (neurons) daily
  • Increased neurons in the hippocampus, the learning and memory center of the brain
  • Protection of the brain functions for increased health
  • Increased connections among existing neural pathways
  • Increased brain organization and integration

Enhanced Cognition (Etnier 1997)

  • Enhanced mental performance, memory, learning, attention, decision making, and multitasking
  • Increased adaptivity, efficiency, and ability to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences
  • Increased executive function to enhance higher-level mental skills that inhibit impulses, shift focus, control emotions, initiate, plan, organize, and monitor
  • Improved arousal and vigilance that in educational terms translates to focus
  • Improved perception
  • Improved cellular function (learning translates from short-term to long-term memory and learning becomes automatic)
  • Decreased distraction
  • Improved process of putting thought into action
  • Improved ability to put patterns into sequences (letters into words, words into sentences).

Improved Memory

  • Enhanced short-term working memory and increased long-term potentiality
  • Physiological strengthening of the brain as the result of dendritic branching
  • Staved-off symptoms and signs of dementia

Reduced Stress

  • Reduced test anxiety
  • Decreased symptoms of depression after just three days of exercise
  • Improved adaptation to challenges in a changing environment
  • Decreased toxic effects of high levels of stress
  • Reduced neuronal death caused by chronic stress

Balanced Mood and Behavior

  • Improved attention, motivation, self-esteem, cooperation
  • Ameliorated learned helplessness
  • Improved resilience and self-confidence
  • Increased ability to withstand stress and frustration
  • Fewer behavior problems
  • Increased coping skills when presented with a new situation
  • Increased self-discipline and self-esteem
  • Reduction or elimination of the need for ADHD medications and antidepressants
  • Regulated mood through the natural balance of neurotransmitters
  • Regulated sleep patterns for increased alertness during school hours
  • Intrinsic sense of reward, motivation, and satisfaction
  • Impulse control
  • Joyful attitude
  • Increased state of happiness and life satisfaction

Improved Social Skills and Behavior

  • Lower levels of drug use in teens
  • Better family relationships
  • Noticeable improvement in key personal, social, cooperative, and communication skills
  • Improved attention, impulsivity, motivation, self-esteem, and cooperation

Improved Academic Performance (Dwyer et al. 2001)

  • Improved reading and math scores
  • Improved reading comprehension and analysis
  • Higher IQ scores
  • Higher grade-point average in adolescents
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Intensified focus in classroom
  • Improved problem-solving skills
  • Reduced truancy and dropout rates

Health and Learning

Healthy, active kids make better learners. We are not designed to sit. We are designed to move. Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), says this in his July 5, 2011, blog: “The human brain appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting in unstable meteorological conditions and to do so in near constant motion. So, if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you'd design a frickin' classroom!”

A new study from American Cancer Society (2011) finds it's not just how much physical activity you get but how much time you spend sitting that can affect your risk of premature death. Time spent sitting is independently associated with total mortality, regardless of physical activity level. Public health messages should promote being physically active as well as reducing sedentary time.

A 2009 study by Hillman and colleagues shows that a single bout of moderate exercise is beneficial for cognitive function. Students walked for 20 minutes on a treadmill before doing a cognitive task; they were compared to students sitting and doing a cognitive task. The conclusion was a positive outcome linking physical activity, attention, and academic achievement. Cumulative brain scans of the participants (see figure I.1) illustrate that the active brain is better prepared to learn.

The 2009 Texas Youth Fitness Study conducted by the Cooper Institute compared Fitnessgram fitness scores to scores from a standardized test called TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). The researchers found significant associations between physical fitness and indicators of academic achievement:

  • Academic performance. Higher levels of fitness are associated with better academic performance.
  • School attendance. Higher levels of fitness are associated with better school attendance.
  • School incidents. Higher levels of fitness are associated with fewer negative incidents at school.

Moving With Intention and Learning

Movement with intention anchors learning and prepares the brain for learning (Blaydes 2000). Neuroscience supports the link of exercise, physical activity, and movement to improved academic performance. A 2011 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that intentional movement and exercise can improve test scores. The study adds to growing evidence that exercise is good not only for the body but also for the mind. In the study, first- and second-graders moved through stations in the action-based learning lab, learning developmentally appropriate movement skills while basic academic skills were reinforced. For example, children traced shapes on the ground while sitting on scooters and walked on ladders while naming colors on each rung or reciting sight words.

Third- through sixth-graders had access to exercise equipment with TV monitors with math problems playing for review. For instance, a treadmill had a monitor that played geography lessons as a student ran through the scene, and a rock-climbing wall was outfitted with numbers that changed as the students climbed so that they could work on math skills. The results of the study showed that the time spent out of a traditional classroom in order to increase physical education did not hurt students' academic achievement. In fact, students' test scores improved. Specifically, the number of students reaching their goals on the state tests increased from 55 percent before the program was initiated to 68.5 percent after the program was initiated. When carefully designed physical education programs are implemented, children's academic achievement does not suffer.

The action-based learning lab described in the 2011 study is an example of how intentional movement prepares the brain for learning, each station having a link to learning. The brain and body's movement and learning systems are interdependent and interactive (Madigan 2006). For example, motor development provides the framework that the brain uses for sequencing the patterns needed for academic concepts. The body's vestibular system controls balance and spatial awareness and facilitates a student's ability to place words and letters on a page. When a child walks or crawls in specific patterns, the brain's ability to encode symbols is enhanced and the four visual fields needed for eye tracking are strengthened. Proper development, enrichment, and remediation of these systems are critical to a child's ability to learn.

Movement, physical activity, and rhythmic patterns enhance learning and understanding. Students use gestures, actions, movement patterns, songs, and dance to understand academic concepts and anchor learning. The concept is called embodied cognition. When more modalities are used in learning a concept, the information is stored in several areas of the brain so the brain has more memory pathways for retrieving the information.

The lessons in this book and DVD-ROM address movement, physical activity, and rhythmic patterns that will help students learn and remember information about health and physical activity. For example, in activity 1, the song “Parts of an Exercise Bout” teaches students about the importance of preparing the body for a workout, completing the workout, and relaxing the body after a workout, or bout of exercise. Students learn movements that go with each part (warm-up, static stretch, workout, cool-down, and dynamic stretch) that provide physical activity and rhythmic patterns set to music, which students repeat throughout the song to aid memory. After the song and movements are over, questions on the DVD reinforce what students have learned. You can use the assessments to determine how well students remember the information once the song and movement session are complete. An example is a lesson from Thinking on Your Feet (2000) by Jean Blaydes Madigan:

Action Punctuation

Read a sentence or story. Punctuate using the following body movements and sounds.

  • Capital letter—jump up and say, “Go.”
  • Period—Put your fist on your nose and say, “Whoa.”
  • Comma—Put your hands on your hips, circle hips around, and say, “Slow down.”
  • Question mark—Shrug shoulders with hands up in air and say, “Huh?”
  • Exclamation mark—Grab the air with the right fist and bring down forcefully and say, “Yes.”
  • Quotation marks—Pretend to make quotation marks in the air with fingers and say, “Ching, ching.”
  • Apostrophe—Use the elbow to make an apostrophe in the air and say, “Not.”

Reprinted, by permission, from J.B. Madigan, 2000, Thinking on your feet (Murphy, TX: Action Based Learning).


We can exercise our smarts by exercising to be smart. Healthy, active students make better learners. In fact, healthy, active people of any age make better learners. Our bodies are designed for exercise. As stated previously, exercise benefits the brain first. We exercise to help our brains work better and learn better. The brain is only as healthy as the body that carries it. When we take care of our bodies, we take care of our

Read more from Learning Through Movement and Music by GeoMotion Group Inc.

More Excerpts From Learning Through Movement and Music



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