The evidence is in and it’s pretty straightforward — we need to move to thrive.
The New York Times recently reported a disturbing discovery: in a study of the diets and exercise habits of more than 12,000 Australians, each hour of television one of the participants watched after the age of 25 reduced life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.
Another recent experiment discussed in the same article pointed out that highly sedentary behavior led to 112 percent increase in the risk of getting diabetes. The authors of this report note that “the average adult spends 50 to 70 percent of their time sitting.”
So at this point, I’d recommend getting up, doing a couple of knee bends, and then reading the rest of this column while standing or better yet, walking in place.
If we as adults are in this kind of position, where are our children? And what should we be advocating for, on their behalf, in terms of exercise in their schools? That they need to incorporate movement into their daily lives in a meaningful way is obvious. And science has a lot to tell us about precisely what happens to their brains and bodies when they do so.
Much of the research neuroscientists and physiologists have done in the last decade has proved that staying active greatly enhances cognitive abilities and helps to build higher-functioning brains, no matter how old you are. Children, and teenagers in particular, benefit from serious and regular exercise.
Research shows that kids with a sustained elevated heart rate have brains that both absorb and recall greater quantities of information and can do so for longer periods of time.
Why does physical activity matter so much? It’s actually quite simple: the brain, like other organs in our body, is made of tissue that atrophies when not used.
While most adults naturally begin to lose a small percentage of the brain’s volume beginning in the late 20s, exercise can slow or even reverse this process, much as it does when muscle groups in any part of the body are used more frequently.
In fact, recent neuroscience studies indicate that exercise can begin a process of neurogenesis, or creation of new brain cells. Research done at the University of Illinois by a team led by Justin S. Rhodes demonstrates that exercise is especially helpful when subjects are asked to tackle new cognitive challenges. Rhodes’ team showed that the combination of a challenging learning environment and vigorous athletic offerings is optimal for enhancing the brain’s existing neural network, thus increasing thinking power and problem-solving abilities.
This powerful blend may even lead to greater agility both on the athletic field and in the classroom.
Of course, regular exercise and participating on a team create and deepen other talents as well.
Students who have these commitments must manage their time efficiently and balance a greater range of responsibilities, habits that are important to master at a young age and whose skills have many important applications when students later enter college and the work force.
Nor should we underestimate what sports can do to develop leadership and character. Children need diverse opportunities to practice and cultivate sportsmanship and camaraderie, qualities that team sports ideally give them the chance to experience.
As a teacher and a coach, I observed that students in athletic programs often possessed more resilience with which to overcome adversity they faced both on a playing field and in other aspects of their lives. And a high degree of resilience is proving to be one of the most useful qualities for our children to develop.
In short, being committed to a team not only has physical benefits, it leads to skills that make students more likely to succeed in a wide variety of arenas.
But the bottom line is to get kids moving. Some kids will thrive on teams; others may prefer individual sports or experiences. No matter what they choose, the critical issue is that they make that choice — and that they stick with their decision to exercise, even when it’s hard.
There’s still so much to learn about how precisely exercise enhances the brain. But enough evidence is in for parents and educators to be able to say this: If we want smarter students with greater capacity to learn and overcome obstacles, we need to include and encourage exercise as part of their daily program.
What’s good for the heart is also good for the brain, and I would argue, the spirit. And we’ll all be a lot more effective as mothers, fathers, coaches and teachers if we make the same kind of investment in our own well-being. Let’s model physical activity in our daily routines.
Now that’s a movement worth pursuing.
Brad Choyt is the head of school at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth.