The Brain and Exercise

Exercise boosts brainpower and longevity.

Improvement in learning can come from three sources. The first relates to diet. The second relates to sleep. The third is exercise, the subject of this article.

The brain represents only about two percent of most people’s body weight, yet it accounts for about 20 percent of the body’s total energy usage. In addition to its reliance on energy, the brain relies on oxygen, and exercise provides the body greater access to oxygen.

When you understand the biology of exercise, your chances of influencing yourself and your students towards this direction will be enhanced.

One of the greatest predictors of successful living, working, and aging-both mentally and physically-is the absence of a sedentary life style. Exercise improves brainpower and cardiovascular fitness, which in turn reduces the risk of diseases such as heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes. Exercise helps regulate appetite, reduces risk of many types of cancer, improves the immune system, and buffers against the toxic effects of stress. The reason is that exercise regulates the release of the three neotransmitters most commonly associated with the maintenance of mental health: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Exercise improves children’s ability to learn. Physically fit children identify visual stimuli much faster than sedentary children. They concentrate better. Brain-activation studies show that children and adolescents who are fit allocate more cognitive resources to a task and do so for longer periods of time. They are also less likely to be disruptive in terms of classroom behavior when they are active. They feel better about themselves, have higher self-esteem, less depression, and less anxiety-all of which affect academic performance and attentiveness.

When you exercise, you increase blood flow across the tissues of your body because exercise stimulates blood vessels to create a powerful, flow-regulating molecule called nitric axide. As the flow improves, the body makes new blood vessels, which penetrate deeper and deeper into the tissues of the body. This allows more access to the bloodstream’s goods and services, which include food distribution and waste disposal. The more you exercise, the more tissues you can feed and the more toxic waste you can remove. This happens all over the body. That’s the reason exercise improves the performance of most human functions. Exercise also encourages neurogenesis, the formation of new cells in the brain.

The benefits of exercise seem nearly endless because it impacts most physiological systems. Exercise makes muscles and bones stronger while improving strength and balance.

Reducing exercise to promote improved test scores is like trying to gain weight by starving. The point is that not only should we teachers establish procedures to exercise regularly, we should provide active exercise and movement periodically in our classes. Even though it may take class time away from academics, it is well known (except by “leaders” concerned more with politics than learning) that physical exercise contribute to increased mental effectiveness.