Teaching advances based on neuroscience and kinesiology

February 22, 2021

Brandes Gress

Introducing the body-brain connection 

The positive effects of physical activity on the human body have been researched and proven countless times, but what continues to bewilder scientists is the positive effects it can have on the human brain. Until recently, kinesiology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology had little to do with each other. These disciplines were studied, researched, and analyzed as separate entities. 

After researchers connected neuroscience with developmental psychology and kinesiology, they began to study the relations between kinesiology and neuroscience. In other words, how the movements of the body, or lack of, can affect brain function.  

Over the years children have had less time to play outside, and more time in the classroom compared to their parents. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that children spend their weekdays sitting while completing their school work on the computer. Children are becoming more sedentary than ever. 

Due to the abundance of research on the benefits of physical activity on good brain health, teachers understand the positive effects it has on their students’ learning capabilities. The following insights can encourage teachers to add quick and easy physical activities to their online lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic: 

1. Exercise increases neural formations and growth   

The human brain is made up of approximately 100 billion neurons. These neurons connect to one another and send electrical signals that transmit information to different areas of the brain. They are responsible for all brain functions, and are the commanding officers of our cognition and central nervous system. Research conducted in UCLA found that exercise increases the release of hormones in the brain, which stimulates neural formations and growth in many cortical areas of the brain. Martin et al. (2000) reported that neural connections and growth supports memory and learning.  

When someone exercises or engages in physical activity, the neurons in the brain are being stimulated which can promote healthy cognition and enhance memory or learning. Teachers can use the research developments in neuroscience to implement kinesthetic activities to enhance student learning and memory. These activities don’t necessarily need to be academic to promote learning and memory. Any kind of physical activity will bolster neural stimulation which can help learners inside the classroom. Not only can memory and learning be enhanced with physical activity, but executive function can be strengthened too.   

2. Cognitive processes improve with short-term exercise 

According to the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive function is the mental process that enables flexible thinking, goal-directed behavior, and self-control. These functions help people plan, prioritize and organize information, stay on task, and regulate emotions. Several studies showcase the positive effects aerobic exercise has on a child’s executive function. For example, a study conducted by Caterino & Polak (1999) found that directly after a physical activity, concentration levels improved in 4th grade children. Further, Hilman et al. (2009) discovered that academic test results were higher after exercise. In this study children who participated in 20 minutes of aerobic walking before engaging in an academic activity scored higher than their sedentary peers.  

The above-mentioned research indicates that a student’s executive function is improved when they participate in an aerobic activity right before an academic test or classroom work. Teachers can easily implement short aerobic exercises, like walking, before tests or activities to enhance their student’s executive function and academic achievement. Physical activity not only has short-term cognitive benefits but can also improve cognition when it becomes a long-term habitual practice.  

3. Long-term exercise positively affects academic achievement

Long-term benefits of exercise on the body can reduce chances of cardiovascular disease, improve weight management, strengthen muscular structure, and a myriad of other health advantages. In longitudinal studies, scientists have also noted cognitive improvements related to regular exercise. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans states that habitual exercise can improve academic achievement on tests, memory, executive function, and processing speed in children aged 6 to 13.  

Similar findings were reported by the California Department of Education. Their study highlighted academic improvements after 4 months of physical activity, when children exercised daily. They measured mathematics and English language arts in both male and female students in grades 5, 7, and 9 and identified a strong correlation between physical activity and academic success.  

Teachers can implement a regular exercise program to improve cognitive function and academic success in their students. Each year there is less time for children to play outside because school systems want them to spend school hours in the classroom to increase test scores, but research shows that children excel academically when they have free time to play, run, and engage in physical activity. The exercises can be kinesthetic games like relay races or basketball. Educators don’t necessarily need to stress about what activity will be best because all physical activity suffices.  

4. No equipment needed 

Teachers can utilize this information to implement habitual exercise as part of a regular academic program. A study by John Best (2010) found that running, balancing, strength-training, games, and walking have all been associated with increased academic performance in children of different age groups. These activities are accessible and achievable to the majority of students as many of these activities require little or no equipment. Running a few laps around the school yard each day, or creating an obstacle course for students, can have a positive effect on their overall academic achievement and cognition. Short-term and habitual exercise not only has an impact on cognition, but can also improve a student’s mood, which influences scholastic progress.    

5. Exercise can significantly improve psychiatric disorders and mood 

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that approximately 4.4 million children aged 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety, and approximately 1.9 million children in the same age range have diagnosed depression. These numbers are not only staggering but are increasing. The CDC also reports that children diagnosed with anxiety or depression have increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2011.  

Diagnosed anxiety or depression, and anxious or depressed moods can negatively impact a student’s overall academic achievement. The Child Mind Institute declared that children and adolescents with psychiatric disorders are at-risk for academic failure, and 60-80% are not getting treatment. These statistics are alarming and are a cause for concern for educators in all age groups, but regular physical activity has shown improvement in these areas. 

6. The chemical factors  

Inside the brain, there are different chemicals that influence a person’s mood. Some of these chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, are released during exercise. According to Heijen et al. (2016) and Meeusen & Meirlier (1995), all 3 of these chemicals are released during exercise. The increase of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine can have an influence on overall mood, and in turn, can significantly improve overall academic performance in students. 

Including regular exercise, whether it be short sprints outside before a test, or an extra 15 minutes of kinesthetic games after lunch each day, children can experience an improved mood. This is because of neurochemical release in the brain which can increase mood and cognition. Games, like Simon says, can give children of all ages something fun to play during online lessons, and are easily implemented into distance learning. 

7. A positive correlation between regular exercise and mental health  

Researchers have studied the effect that regular exercise can have on mood in children and adolescents. One study conducted by Philippot et al. (2019) found that adolescents exhibited decreased levels of anxiety and depression after being engaged in low-to-moderate daily activity for 5 weeks, compared to those who did not participate. This shows that low-to-moderate activity, like walking, can have a positive impact on mood.  

A systematic review of 114 studies conducted by Rodriguez-Ayllon et. al (2019), looked at mood in preschoolers, children, and adolescents after different types of exercise. They found a positive correlation between regular exercise and mental health. This shows that the mental health of students in all age groups can be positively altered by regular exercise. 

When a physical activity becomes habitual, children and adolescents can achieve an increase in overall well-being, self-esteem, physical health, social interaction, and academic performance. These developments in neuroscience are paramount for teachers to understand, so they can use this information to integrate physical activity into their lessons to enhance student learning and academic success. Creating a schedule of regular activity on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays or Tuesdays and Thursdays can create a routine children can thrive in, and give them something fun to look forward to while they increase their cognitive abilities.  

8. Possible relief to behavioral or developmental disorders  

According to the CDC, mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders begin in early childhood, and a staggering 1 in 6 children in the United States have been diagnosed with at least one of these disorders.  

One of the most common behavioral disorders is ADHD. Studies such as Zang (2019) and Smith et al (2012) show significant improvement in ADHD behaviors with regular exercise which can also reduce the severity of their symptoms. This means that the disruptive behaviors, social problems, inattention, or impulsivity often associated with ADHD can be reduced when the student engages in regular physical activity. This can decrease classroom disruptions and increase academic achievement for students with ADHD.  

A prevalent developmental disorder is an autism spectrum disorder. As reported by the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 54 children have been identified as having autism spectrum disorder, and it is 4 times more likely to occur in boys than girls. Research such as the study conducted by Nicholson et al. (2010), has shown that physical activity, such as jogging, improved the academic performance in children with an autism spectrum disorder.  

Regardless of the developmental, behavioral, or cognitive ability, physical activity makes a positive impact on academic achievement. Simple tactics, such as running in place, or jumping jacks, are easily implemented into a daily online classroom routine. Physical activity, whether it be short-term or habitual, has positive effects on learning, memory, mood, and academic success. Lack of physical activity can have detrimental effects on the brain, and subsequently academic achievement.   

9. Sedentary behaviors can lower cognitive processes

In Physical Guidelines for Americans, the author states that sedentary behavior is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. In addition, lack of physical activity can also have adverse effects on cognition. A study conducted by Zavala-Crichton et al. (2020) found that sedentary behavior can negatively affect brain structure and intelligence in children. They looked at children aged 8-11 and discovered that the children who engaged in higher amounts of sedentary behavior, like watching TV, displayed lower volumes of gray matter in the brain.  

Gray matter is responsible for hearing, memory, speech, decision-making, and self-control. A study conducted by Ramanoël et al. (2018) associated smaller amounts of gray matter with a decline in cognitive processes. This reveals that sedentary behaviors can have a negative effect on the physical structure of the brain, and therefore on cognition. Studies examining preschool and school-aged children like Syväoja et al. (2014) Carson et al. (2017) respectively, show findings that indicate that sedentary behaviors in these age groups negatively affect cognitive function and development. The above-mentioned studies show cognition is negatively impacted by lack of movement, further signifying the need for physical activity in children’s lives, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, which can be implemented by teachers during a school day. 

10. Regular exercise makes for smarter, happier, and healthier children 

For generations people have widely understood the importance of regular physical activity and exercise to maintain bodily health. Health problems like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers are widely associated with sedentary behaviors and lifestyles. The connection between physical activity and cognition is relatively new, and although the associations between these 2 disciplines is recent, research findings show strong positive correlations between physical activity and brain function.  

Whether it be short-term or habitual exercise, research has shown that physical activity can improve student academic achievement and cognition, moreover lack of exercise may be destructive to a child’s brain development and function.  

Incorporating regular exercise into online classroom routines can increase neural formations, release neurotransmitters associated with happiness, and improve concentration which increases academic achievement in students with typical and atypical development. 

Simple physical activities, such as running in place or jumping jacks, are not only easily implemented during distance learning lessons, but are crucial for the health and academic achievement of all children and adolescents.  

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