Friday, May 29, 2009

Brain Rules: Rule #1: Exercise.

I recently read an absolutely fantastic book called "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School," by Dr. John Medina, a brain scientist and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. (Get more info at So much of the information in this book is relevant to teachers-and in many cases, confirms what savvy practitioners have seen for years in their classrooms-that I have been inspired to (re)share it with the world. Or, at least that small sampling of the world that reads this blog. I'll try to summarize one rule each (one chapter of the book) in a series of 12 posts to this blog.

I'll start with Rule #1: Exercise. It's probably the easiest rule to explain and to understand, and it really connects with common sense. The rule is: Exercise boosts brain power.

To think well, we need to move. Our bodies and brains evolved to exist in nearly constant motion. A sedentary lifestyle just ruins our ability to think and learn. If you want one simple way to improve your students' performance, get them up out of their chairs and moving. Even low impact exercise (walking or bouncing up and down on an exercise ball) can produce major improvements in creative thinking, attention and memory - and thus learning. Studies with children have shown that simply adding physical activity to a school routine improves outcomes in core content areas (reading, math, etc.). 30 minutes playing dodgeball may actually do more to improve kids' math scores than 30 extra minutes working word problems. Obviously, you have to have the lessons too. But exercise releases chemicals in the brain that make the lessons stick.

This doesn't just apply to children. To remain life-long learners, exercise is key. It wards off dementia and can halt or even reverse age-related declines in mental performance. In educational settings, there is every reason to believe that adults' brains benefit just as much from exercise as kids'.

One reason for the improvement in mental function among elders may be that exercise encourages the brain to grow new neurons. Yes! That old idea that we are born with all the brain cells we will ever have (and simply proceed to lose them as we age) is just plain wrong. You can grow new brain cells, and exercise might be the best way to release the chemicals that will set that process in motion. At the very least, regular exercise significantly reduces the chance of stroke. And stroke, if it doesn't kill, can cause serious brain damage.

The long and the short of it: sitting still in a chair is not a good brain environment for attention, memory, thinking, or learning. Get your students up and about! A parked butt signals a fuzzy brain.

And on that note, I think I'll go for a brisk walk around the office before turning my attention to my next project!

1 comment:

Cathy Grady said...

Love your post, Susan. Thanks for saving me time - now I can just read your blog about this book and exercise in my spare time!
I'm looking forward to the next 11 rules (my brain needs each and every one)!