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Last year was difficult for my 13-year-old Sienna. She started 7th grade at a brand-new school — for her, at least. It’s actually the school I attended from kindergarten to 12th grade, where my mom is still the dean of students. It’s a fantastic private school that uses a classical education model. It’s also academically rigorous and nationally recognized — a far cry from the majority of Sienna’s schooling thus far.
We knew it would be tough. She was prepared and eager to take on the challenge, and I couldn’t be prouder of how hard she worked and how her grades improved throughout the year. But I was pleasantly surprised when I looked back on the year and realized that her improvement was most notable after spring sports started. When the track team began practicing for an hour and a half each morning before first class, her grades improved markedly.
Over the summer, I listened to an audio book by Dr. John Ratey called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,and suddenly it all made sense — Sienna’s grades improved more rapidly because those intense, early-morning cardio sessions were literally jump-starting her brain.
Ratey opens the book by talking about a public school district in Naperville, Illinois, that introduced a morning PE class called Zero Hour. This mandatory program uses heart rate monitors to ensure that students’ heart rates get sufficiently high (70-75% of max capacity) for 30-45 minutes. The program was a resounding success in terms of fitness — only 3% of Naperville high school sophomores are obese, compared with over 30% of sophomores nationwide.
But Zero Hour was a resounding success in the classroom as well. Naperville is consistently ranked among the top schools in the nation, and Naperville high school students consistently achieve high (often perfect) scores on the ACT. Perhaps more remarkable is Naperville’s performance on the Trends in International Mathemantics and Science Study (a test US students routinely bomb). Naperville 8th graders ranked #1 in the world on the science section, and #6 in the world in math — ahead of many Asian countries like Singapore whose students have long been considered the best in the world at math and science.
So what exactly is happening in Naperville, and in my teenage daughter’s brain? I’m so glad you asked. Let me break it down for you. Exercise — vigorous, heart-pounding exercise — improves the brain’s ability to learn in three different ways.
1Boosting the signal
Levels of vital neurotransmitters — dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine — are increased after strenuous exercise. These literally transmit signals across neural pathways, and when levels are low, signals move sluggishly. That’s why antidepressants like Prozac and stimulants like Ritalin can be so helpful — those drugs boost the levels of individual neurotransmitters. Exercise, on the other hand, boosts them all — and in a more seamless and effective way. Basically, a dose of intense cardio is like taking the perfect combination of Ritalin and Prozac for your brain’s individual chemistry. It will calm the body and allow the mind to focus by reducing impulsivity and distraction.
2Strengthening the command center
Multiple studies have found that the higher a person’s aerobic capacity is, the more active their prefrontal cortex is. The prefrontal cortex is the command center of the brain, controlling and coordinating all the other brain processes. Teenagers have notoriously underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes (which explains so much), but this finding holds true across all ages. The more fit you are at any age, the stronger your brain’s command center will be.
3Miracle-Gro for the brain
This last one is the most exciting — intense exercise literally makes your brain grow. Fast. Here’s how it works: during intense exercise, your muscles send a protein called IGF-1 into your bloodstream, where it crosses the blood-brain barrier and sparks production of miracle brain gro — scientifically known as BDNF. BDNF literally grows new neurons and their connections. It makes your brain grow, which makes learning and retention easier. (Sidenote — this works for people of all ages, not just children and teenagers.)
Here’s the deal — you can’t just go hit a volleyball around or play catch and get these benefits. The reason Naperville uses heart monitors is because this positive cascade only happens after 30-45 minutes of vigorous physical exercise. Not quite CrossFit vigorous, but definitely beyond a mall-walk. You have to get your heart rate up and keep it up to reap the brain rewards.
So here’s a challenge for you: this year: put your school-aged kids to bed an hour earlier than usual. Then go to bed yourself — yes, an hour earlier than usual. Wake everyone up an hour early, and go for a long family run or bike ride. Run sprints if that’s your thing, or lift some weights and hit a punching bag. Whatever kind of exercise gets your blood pumping, do it. Every day. With your kids. Then see what happens. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
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