Keep on Running in order to Learn

While reading the paper and languishing in the garden last weekend, I came across Jonathan Leake’s Sunday Times article which said “Running and other exercise is as beneficial for the brain as the body”, while I reached for another biscuit. The health benefits of regular, moderate exercise have been extolled for decades, and this is something I have been talking to some of our students about in the run up to, or at the start of exams.

This article, covering research in NeuroImage stated that “people who keep fit tend to have larger brains, better memories and clearer thinking. Conversely, unfit people have smaller brains and reduced cognitive skills”. MRI scans have shown that there is greater cerebral blood flow in those who were fit, with a better supply of blood and nutrients to the brain. Another study saw improvements in the hippocampus, significant in terms of recognition memory storage and retrieval.

Although these studies are new, it reminded me of Professor Ratey’s 2007 study and his later book Spark, which highlights the brain chemicals released during exercise, including serotonin and dopamine which help create an alert brain ready to learn. He also argues that exercise is beneficial in moderating hormonal fluctuations, ADHD, stress, anxiety, mood, and in improving academic achievement. He found that 40 minutes a day of exercise improved executive function in children and a brisk, 10-minute walk has been shown to have a more lasting energizing effect than a cup of coffee. Something I also need to remember.


What this latest research shows us is that exercise reduces lesions in white matter that carry messages to different areas of the brain, and exercise controls cognitive and other functions that shrink with age. In some other studies, those who improved their fitness, improved their brain functioning. Although the reasons are unknown, it is the work with mice that gives clues, as their cell regeneration was markedly better in exercising mice.

Whereas some schools have used this information and started exercise classes before school, and in New Zealand where I used to teach, they have daily 15 minutes ‘fitness’ lessons, here in RGS, the range of exercise options cater for many strengths, tastes and schedules. With summer on its way, apart from flagging motivation, we have few excuses. Although I do like to think that sweat is just fat crying.

At exam time, it is so important to keep reminding our students that exercise is a key factor in stress reduction and such an important part of their revision. The belief that they will do better if they swap exercise for revision is one we need to reverse. But this is harder new, as Plato said “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection”. The pursuit of perfection may be unhelpful but feeling healthier and cognitively stronger is no doubt something we want for everyone during every exam.


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