Is it possible that a somatopsychic effect exists in which the health of the body (soma) affects the health of our brain (psychic), thus influencing learning and cognitive function? In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey summarizes the positive affect that physical activity has on brain function (Ratey and Hagerman 2008). Current research has even demonstrated that physical activity can stimulate neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells) while also increasing the number of neural connections (Bekinschtein et al. 2011). A growing body of knowledge shows that youth and adolescents who participate in regular moderate and vigorous physical activity do better at school in terms of academic achievement, attendance, attention, memorization, and integration. They also exhibit fewer disciplinary problems and incidences of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Gaskill, Miller, and Wambold 2012, Trudeau and Shephard 2008).
These studies make a strong case for increasing physical activity in schools rather than the current trend to reduce recess, cut physical education, and spend more time sitting in the classroom. The understanding that physical activity was related to brain health is not new. Ancient philosophers believed that bodily activity improved brain fitness.Plato, Hippocrates, and many others stressed the mind-body connection throughout their writings, yet it is only recently that both empirical evidence and mechanistic studies are beginning to document the basis for the body-mind connection. Let’s take a look at some of the opinions and evidence.
In a study of 482 2nd- through 12th-grade students, we (Gaskill, Miller, and Wambold 2012) evaluated physical activity compared to both grade point average and standardized tests scores. The most active fourth of the students averaged nearly a full grade point higher and did significantly better on standardized tests than the quartile of least active students. The academic achievement gap increased with grade level. By high school, the GPA gap was nearly 1.5 grade points (3.52 for the most active versus 2.14 for the least active). Students in the Naperville, Illinois school district are all required to participate in nearly an hour of daily physical activity, which substantially raises their heart rates. They also placed 1st in the world in science testing and 6th in math. Additionally, their rates of overweight and obesity are less than 10 percent, nearly half of the rate of nearby communities and one-third of the national average (Ratey and Hagerman 2008).
During the last 5 years, more than 100 studies have documented the effect of physical activity or fitness on academic performance (Singh et al. 2012). In a number of studies, up to an hour of physical activity time replaced academic classroom time. In every study, academic performance measures either increased or at least did not decrease, even when time was taken from academic time for physical activity. In addition, attendance improved, and disciplinary referrals and attention deficit were reduced. What is generally not mentioned in these studies are all of the other benefits of physical activity: reduced obesity rates, decreased risk of chronic disease, improved self-efficacy, and all of the other benefits discussed in this book. In animal studies, and using new imaging techniques in humans, scientists have shown that increased physical activity helps our brains to grow new neurons and to increase the connections between neurons (Bekinschtein et al. 2011). This brain growth, termed neurogenesis, was previously believed not to occur in adults. Data suggest that coordinative and sustained aerobic exercise dramatically improve brain function. This is particularly true for youth, but adults and the elderly can also both improve cognition and slow the rates of decline.
The stimulus for neurogenesis and the associated improved memory, integration of information, and attention span that leads to higher cognitive function and academic achievement is the result of a number of hormones and brain chemicals that are increased or decreased by the exercise stimulus. Contracting muscles release growth factors such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2) and help stimulate blood vessel growth in both the body and the brain. Vascular diameter is enlarged by nitric oxide, increasing blood flow and decreasing hardening of the arteries, even in the brain. Exercise stimulates insulin-like growth factor, thus better regulating insulin while also improving synaptic plasticity in the brain. As blood glucose decreases as a result of exercise, both exercise and lower blood glucose stimulate brain-derived neurotropic factor, which has been termed “Miracle Grow for the brain” by Dr. Ratey (Ratey and Hagerman 2008). Exercise also stimulates a number of neurotransmitters and neurotrophin to stimulate and encourage growth of the hippocampus area of the brain. These effects elevate our mood and reduce our chances for dementia. So, there really is a body–brain connection. Current research shows that an active lifestyle has many positive outcomes in our brains.
In the fall of 2011, the American College of Sports Medicine held the first conference dedicated to how physical activity affects cognition and learning. More than 400 scientists, teachers, administrators, doctors, and politicians attended. The exciting news is that many schools and communities are adapting new policies that encourage or require physical activity on a regular basis for school youth. Those schools are seeing improvements in learning, behavior, attendance, and graduation, as well as decreases in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The following box lists best practices learned at this conference, along with some great resources that parents and school officials can use in order to change their schools.