For millions of years, we moved. A lot. The human species still exist, because we were able to coordinate complex hand movements with rational thinking while being on our feet! Smart hunting techniques and the ability to build more or less complex shelters alongside movement are just a few examples, proving how much of a survival advantage it must have been to perform cognitive tasks while moving. This unique ability made us the ultimate predator in the animal kingdom and eventually lead to brain growth in the first place.
And then we started to sit. In comparison to our evolutionary history, a very recent phenomenon, or a glimpse of the eye to put it blandly. We sabotage ourselves, when we are sitting down at work — the very place, where cognitive power is most decisive and even existential for advancing ones academic success or career.
The importance of movement in learning is now recognised by many health and education authorities worldwide. Among them includes the United States National Institute of Medicine, which recommends that fitness-based physical education should be a core school subject, not because of physical health, but because of its direct benefits for learning. In one school district, teachers took these early neuroscience findings to heart and implemented a fitness-based learning model that has had startling benefits.
The miracle of Naperville
In the Naperville school district in Illinois, students engage in a minimum of 40 minutes of active movement each day while at school. This doesn’t mean standing around idly on a football field or waiting for a pass on the basketball court. Instead, students take part in activities designed to get their heart rate up to 75–80% of their maximum, whatever that figure may be. The kids run, perform calisthenics, climb, dance, and participate in other pursuits every day. What’s more, guidance counsellors have begun to schedule the kids’ hardest subjects immediately following fitness classes so as to maximise their post-workout learning potential.
Fit kids outcompete
To back this up with data, in a country where a third of children were overweight in 2003, just 3% of Naperville kids were overweight the year after the implementation of this new system (Ratey, 2008). And, in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) used to assess students’ knowledge across countries, Naperville kids (who competed as a country themselves) came in first in the world for science and sixth in the world for mathematics (Ratey, 2008). For comparison, the U.S. as a whole came in eighteenth and nineteenth in science and mathematics, respectively.
Seeing the success following the Naperville system, researchers have scrambled to determine the underlying factors that drive these positive changes in overall health and academic performance. Subsequent research, including the FITkids study, has found that daily exercise has significant benefits for executive control, accuracy, and reaction times in kids as young as seven (Hillman et al., 2014). Other studies have found that physical activity improves oxygen delivery to the brain, which in turn enhances bone and muscle strength in kids, and increases resistance to stress (Frischenschlager & Gosch, 2012).
Conversely, sedentary kids who engage more frequently in passive activities, such as watching TV or playing seated video games, have more difficulty with attention, focus, and behavioural issues compared to their active peers who demonstrate better reaction times and visual selective attention (Alesi et al., 2014; Syväoja et al., 2014). These studies, and others like them, overwhelmingly support a positive effect of physical fitness on academic achievement in school children (Castelli et al., 2007; Chomitz et al., 2009).
Never leave the playground!
While studies about learning are most often applied to children or adolescents, there’s plenty of evidence supporting the cognitive usefulness of regular physical activity in adults, as well as the perils of too little.
In one study with older adults, a six-month program of daily brisk walking not only led to significant improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, but also to improved executive function, including reasoning, working memory, and task-switching abilities (Baniqued et al., 2018).
The research investigating the relationship between physical fitness and cognitive function becomes a little more complex in adulthood, in part because adults tend to be better at compensating for reduced capacity in some cognitive tasks by calling on other skills (Kamijo et al., 2010). In addition, research suggests that it is not high intensity aerobic fitness that predicts cognitive health. Rather, an active versus a sedentary lifestyle seems to be a better predictor of robust cognitive function throughout the lifespan.
In one study, researchers found that higher levels of physical activity at the age of 36 was associated with a significantly slower rate of memory decline from ages 43–53, with further protective effects when physical activity continued during that time (Richards et al., 2003). In a large study involving 2,509 older adults, those who were more physically active were 31% more likely to maintain cognitive function over the following eight years compared to their more sedentary peers (Yaffe et al., 2009).
Just as it’s essential to build and maintain strong, healthy bones through load-bearing exercise, it’s also vital to exercise the brain to build new tissue and create new connections. The better one’s brain function at midlife, the more likely a person is to maintain cognitive health into his or her golden years. That said, even in cases where cognitive decline has become apparent, exercise has continually proven to help decelerate — and even reverse — cognitive impairment in older age.
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Baniqued, P.L., Gallen, C.L., Voss, M.W., et al. (2018). Brain Network Modularity Predicts Exercise-Related Executive Function Gains in Older Adults. Front Aging Neurosci, Jan 4;9:426.
Castelli, D.M., Hillman, C.H., Buck, S.M., & Erwin, H.E. (2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in third- and fifth-grade students. J Sport Exerc Psychol, Apr; 29(2):239–52.
Chomitz, V.R., Slining, M.M., McGowan, R.J., et al. (2009). Is there a relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement? Positive results from public school children in the northeastern
Frischenschlager, E., & Gosch, J. (2012).. Active Learning — Leichter lernen durch Bewegung. [Active Learning — Easier learning through physical activity] Erzieh. Unterr, 162:131–137.
Kamijo, K., O’Leary, K.C., Pontifex, M.B., et al. (2010). The relation of aerobic fitness to neuroelectric indices of cognitive and motor task preparation. Psychophysiology, Sep;47(5):814–21.
Hillman, C.H., Pontifex, M.B., Castelli, D.M., et al. (2014). Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function. Pediatrics, 134(4), e1063–e1071.
Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Penguin Books.
Richards, M., Hardy, R., & Wadsworth, M.E. (2003). Does active leisure protect cognition? Evidence from a national birth cohort. Soc Sci Med, Feb; 56(4):785–92.
Syväoja, H.J., Tammelin, T.H., Ahonen, T., et al. (2014). The associations of objectively measured physical activity and sedentary time with cognitive functions in school-aged children. PLoS One, 9(7):e103559.
Yaffe, K., Fiocco, A.J., Lindquist, K., et al. (2009). Predictors of maintaining cognitive function in older adults: the Health ABC study. Neurology, Jun 9; 72(23):2029–35.