Man, I loved PE as in elementary school. We got to go outside twice a week with Mrs. Farnady, who not only had a deaf husband and thus could teach us sign language, she also made up dances to Popcorn and Michael Jackson’s Free Willy song, Will You Be There? (Both of which I purchased the singles of so I could dance at home, thank you very much). Of course, we also played a lot of dodge-ballish games, freeze tag, and practiced running a mile (6 laps around the field!!) in true elementary physical education spirit.
Interestingly I came across an article in the New York Times that suggested physical education for kids might not have only cardio and physical health benefits; in fact, kids who exercise might actually be smarter. Gretchen Reynolds reported Phys Ed: Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter?, and it looks like the answer could very well be “Yup.”
Researchers at the University of Illinois had kids perform a treadmill test, took the most fit and least fit kids and had them perform a series of cognitive challenges. The results? The kids who were the most fit had significantly better scores on the tests. MRI’s revealed “…that fit children had significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and ‘executive control,’ or the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts crisply.” In other words, their fitness level was not only related to their ability to run around a school yard, but was also enlarging key components of their brains.
And that’s not all. The MRI’s also showed that fit kids had heftier hippocampi, an area of the brain that deals with complex memory. The study concludes that, “If exercise is responsible for increasing the size of these regions and strengthening the connection between them, being fit may “enhance neurocognition” in young people.” Considering the number of PE programs from ages K-12 being cut, this is a bittersweet news.
But most exciting to me was how little exercise was needed before a thinking test to produce better results. “Past studies from the University of Illinois found that ‘just 20 minutes of walking’ before a test raised children’s scores, even if the children were otherwise unfit or overweight, says Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology at the university and the senior author of many of the recent studies.” Kids don’t need to be star athletes on their YMCA basketball teams – they just need to get moving.
As I read this article, I was reminded of how many companies in Japan start their day: with group exercise. Everyone gathers together and does some stretching and jumping jacks. They might be onto something we’ve forgotten in this part of the world. The old adage of “getting the blood going” might not be a simple turn of phrase, but rather a way in which critical thinking for work is able to actually happen. I’m now curious as to whether exercise has the same affect on adults…
In conclusion, I will say this: my brother is one of the smartest people I know in terms of cognitive skills, memory ability, critical thinking, logic, math, creative writing, music, and even emotional IQ. He’s also one of the fittest people I know, excelling at running (endurance and sprint), basketball, triathlon, hip-hop, soccer, and pretty much any physical test he’s put his mind to.
Anyone else feeling more motivated? I sure am. And I’m also thinking that exercise classes should be mandatory for college students…