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Get Up and Move!

A little exercise may boost learning.

The initial burst of energy following the winter break has run its course, and your students are feeling somewhat unfocused. Who can blame them? Winter is here, the holidays are over, and a lot of tests stand between them and spring. How to snap them out of it and regain that learning momentum? Try exercise.

Exercise During Learning Time: Why Do It?

The health benefits of regular, moderate exercise have been extolled for decades, so it should not come as a surprise that exercise can also affect behavior and learning. A study from 2007 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.

John J. Ratey, M.D., who is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, makes the case for exercise and improved brain performance in his 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He describes how brain chemicals released during exercise, including serotonin and dopamine, help create an alert brain ready to learn, and he argues that exercise is beneficial in moderating hormonal fluctuations, ADHD, stress, anxiety and mood and in improving academic achievement.

Some schools are using these findings to their advantage. Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois, provides vigorous exercise before students take their most challenging classes, typically reading and math. Periods of academic work are punctuated by short “brain breaks” to refresh and refocus attention. Over a five-year period, reading and math scores improved significantly. (See Naperville’s Learning Readiness PE at

Regular exercise also has been shown to have a positive effect on behavior. Evidence suggests that exercise can help students with ADHD/ADD by elevating levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that allow children to evaluate the consequences of behavior. In this way, a student can make the best choices and suppress unacceptable social responses. For some, Ratey says, exercise alone may be all a student needs, although for most it will complement medication.

Exercise also has been known to reduce discipline problems. During the 2007-08 school year, the Charleston Progressive Academy in North Charleston, South Carolina, started a program of before-school activities that included basketball, “double Dutch” jump roping and pogo stick jumping at stations in the gym. The result was a 95% decrease in discipline referrals before school, says Principal Wanda Wright-Sheats. She adds that teachers report students are more focused after exercise, and middle-schoolers who test immediately after morning activities perform better than those who test in the late morning or afternoon.

Getting students the exercise they need is becoming increasingly difficult, however. PE and recess time have been, and continue to be, cut in schools. The American Heart Association reports that only 4% of elementary schools, 8% of middle schools and 2% of high schools provide daily physical education or an equivalent. And these cuts are being made at the same time the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recommended that children and adolescents get 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day. Regular PE time has to be supplemented, and in some districts, classroom teachers—as if they didn’t have enough to do—are required to meet district shortfalls.

Ideas for In-Classroom Exercise

So what can schools do? John Medina, molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, suggests having recess twice a day—aerobic exercise in the morning, and strength building in the afternoon. He envisions individual classroom treadmills. Some schools, such as Naperville, have exercise bikes or teach tai chi and chi kung. Another option is “Instant Recess,” a series of 10-minute exercise breaks that can be done in the classroom.

In addition to regularly scheduled physical education classes, K-4 students at Enders Road Elementary School in Manlius, New York, supplement their daily dose of exercise by starting each day with stretches, calisthenics, in-place aerobic exercises and student-designed exercises. PE teachers lead students and teachers in the exercises using the school’s PA system. This is a great way to energize students who have been on a bus for 30 or more minutes. A plus to the approach is that all classrooms are engaged at the same time so that classes, especially those with open classrooms, don’t disturb each other.

Video games such as Dance Dance Revolution or Just Dance are used once a week for students to get additional aerobic exercise, according to Ed Kupiec, who taught PE there for a decade. The games also are used at recess and before school to provide exercise beyond the state-mandated requirement.

Teachers and students at Jack W. Harmon Elementary School in San Tan Valley, Arizona, are occasionally kept indoors on excessive heat days, but they usually go outside to supplement PE. Until this year, classroom teachers were required to provide 45 minutes of physical activity each day; this year, the requirement was reduced to 30 minutes. Students have 30 minutes of free play on the playground equipment, says Natalie Kinman, adding that some teachers continue to fit in another 15 minutes using exercises that don’t require equipment, including jumping jacks, situps, pushups and running in place.

Ellsworth Elementary, another school in the district, has a walking recess along with free recess. The walking recess is called Walkfit, and the principal walks the playground with the students.

In the end, no two schools can provide the same opportunities. Flexibility and adaptation are necessary, as with everything else in education. But teachers willing to sacrifice a little seat time for exercise can earn big results for their students.

Here are some additional ideas:


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