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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 31, 2008

Exercise the body to build the brain

Illustration by Forest Byrd

The Olympics start next week. And this week, our pages are filled with the accomplishments of local athletes competing in New York’s version of the Olympics, the Empire State Games.

We like running their stories — not just the scores or the victories. The tale of a middle-aged gymnast who coaches but still pursues the sport herself is worth telling. Or the story of a young swimmer whose synchronized team took home a silver medal. “You practice until you get everything perfect,” she said.

Fitness is something we should and can all strive for. We don’t have to be the best; we can compete with ourselves and improve our well-being.

We’ve been inspired by a new book, written by John J. Ratey, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Ratey writes convincingly, carefully marshalling scientific evidence on how aerobic exercise can mean the difference between a calm, focused mind and a harried inattentive self.

He was inspired to write the book because of a 17-year program at a public school district in Naperville, Ill.

“Like many people, I grew up thinking gym was a joke,” writes Ratey.

Phil Lawler, who developed the revolutionary program at Naperville, looked at what was happening in a typical gym class and saw a lot of inactivity: “It’s the nature of team sports: waiting for a turn at bat, waiting for the center’s snap, waiting for the soccer ball to come your way. Most of the time most of the players stood around.”

The kids who weren’t good at gym, and probably most needed it, were, in effect, being punished.

Shifting the focus to cardiovascular fitness, Lawler had kids run a mile every week. Heart-rate monitors gathered data as they ran. When Lawler looked at the stats on a sixth-grade girl who wasn’t at all athletic, he was bowled over. She crossed the finish line with a heart rate of 207, close to the maximum.

“Normally,” he said, “I would have gone to that girl and said, ‘You need to get your ass in gear, little lady!’ It was really that moment that caused dramatic changes in our overall program…I started thinking back to all the kids we must have turned off to exercise because we weren’t able to give them credit. I didn’t have an athlete in class who knew how to work as hard as that little girl.”

Lawler then realized that being fast didn’t necessarily have anything to do with being fit.

Less than 3 percent of adults stay in shape playing team sports, which underscores the failing of traditional gym class. So Lawler set up sports like four-on-four soccer or three-on-three basketball, insuring constant movement.

Now the kids in the Naperville schools, in kindergarten through 12th grade, have a series of challenges for themselves. They are graded on improvements they make in their own fitness. The gyms have mostly donated equipment including TriFit assessment machines and weight machines, climbing walls and video-game-based aerobic machines. The curriculum teaches the principles, practice, and importance of fitness.

In high school, students can choose from options like kayaking, dancing, rock-climbing, and typical team sports. The students design their own fitness plans and track their improvement until they graduate, when they get a 14-page health assessment, combining fitness scores with factors like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, lifestyle, and family history surveys.

The results have been stunning. While about 30 percent of schoolchildren in the United States are overweight, six times more than in 1980, and another 30 percent are on the cusp, in Naperville, 97 percent of freshmen in 2001 and again in 2002 were at a healthy weight, according to body mass index guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control.

Exercise works as a social lubricant, Ratey writes, and the Naperville approach helps timid children learn to make friends and build confidence. Parents report that gym is their children’s favorite class.

But even more remarkable is the effect fitness has had on academic performance. In 1999, Ratey reports, Naperville’s eighth-graders were among some 230,000 students worldwide who took an international standards test, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which evaluates knowledge of math and science. Students in Japan, China, and Singapore have done far better on these tests in recent years than Americans, but Naperville students placed sixth in math and first in the world in science.

Ratey reports similar results on other academic measures. He says that our culture treats the mind and body as if they are separate entities and his goal is to reconnect the two. What neuroscientists have discovered in the past five years, he says, paints a riveting picture of the biological relationship between the body, the brain, and the mind.

“To keep our brains at peak performance,” writes Ratey, “our bodies need to work hard.”

He devotes chapters of his book to describing what happens on a cellular level with exercise’s impact within the brain. Moving our muscles produces proteins that travel through the bloodstream and into the brain, where they play pivotal roles in the mechanisms of our highest thought processes, writes Ratey.

Ratey recognizes that Naperville is an affluent suburban district, the sort of district that typically has higher test scores, so he also looks at a poor community in Pennsylvania. He describes Titusville as “a defunct industrial town of six thousand that’s been left for dead in a stretch of hill country between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie.”

The median income is $25,000 and three-quarters of kindergartners received government assistance for school lunches. Tim McCord, one of a thousand educators being trained by Lawler in the fitness-not-sports methodology through a group called PE4life is the physical education coordinator in Titusville. McCord installed fitness centers, brought in heart-rate monitors, and the district even restructured the school day, adding 10 minutes to the schedule, shaving time from academic classes to carve out time for daily gym.

Since the program started in 2000, Titusville’s standardized test scores have risen from below the state average to 17 percent above it in reading and 18 percent above it in math. And the psychosocial effects are equally important: There has not been a single fistfight among the 550 junior-high kids since 2000.

Similarly, at an inner-city school in Kansas City, Mo. where nearly all the students are on a subsidized meal program, disciplinary problems have been reduced by 67 percent since gym was expanded from one class a week to 45 minutes a day focused on cardiovascular activity.

We wrote last week about the new teachers’ contract at Guilderland, which will lengthen the elementary school day by 25 minutes. One of the reasons is the state may soon require four gym 30-minute periods a week instead of three. We hope the committee that considers re-structuring the day takes a look at Ratey’s book. We know Guilderland teachers have been trained in brain research and we believe this would fit well with their philosophy.

In an era when only 6 percent of American high schools offer a daily physical- education class while kids average 5.5 hours a day in front of a screen, it’s time for all of us to make changes, and public schools are a good place to start. Ratey tells us that we are in danger of eating ourselves to death and killing our brains in the process; exercise can boost memory, improve mood, lower stress, and manage hormones. We can’t start fast enough. Ready, set, go!

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