Back when I was in school there weren’t the number of options for classes that there are now. Our schedules included math, science, English, socials, physical education and since this was a Catholic school we also had religion.
Later on I taught high school briefly before taking an indefinite leave to focus on being an entrepreneur and growing Okanagan Peak Performance Inc. One thing I noticed that had changed from my days as a student to one as a teacher was the wider selection of courses. As well, there were students diagnosed with learning disabilities and other challenges. There would be CEAs and tutors available to help such students.
But what if there was another option available to help students learn? What if there was something that could help the student in the classroom and with their health?
Well there is such an option and it’s to do exercise before school.
A recent review looked at a number of studies to determine the effectiveness of fitness training on memory and learning.
The researchers looked at papers over a 10 year period (from 2009 to 2019) that were listed in PubMed. Participants of included studies ranged from 18-35 years. From an initial search of 467 papers, the criteria above reduced this to 13 papers for the review.
What they found is that exercise improves memory, learning ability, attention and concentration in young people that exercise for up to an hour. The benefits will last up to two hours and included exercise sessions of two to sixty minutes. The common feature is that the exercise had to be high intensity.
With regards to the duration it appears to be more important for cognition and less important for memory. As well, with memory there seems to be some benefit to having a recovery period after even if only as short as five minutes.
So how effective is exercise on improving test scores?
The graphic below is from Paul Zientarski, a retired PE teacher from Illinois. Mr. Zientarski started a before school fitness program to halt the declining health of the students. While the students’ health improved, academic test scores went through the roof. During a phone call with Paul earlier this year he shared with me the requirement for fitness to preceed academics. This is confirmed by the findings of the review.
It’s not clear yet what the mechanism is for the improvements in learning. Some speculate it’s due to BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) flooding the brain after exercise. Others believe it’s due to increased expression and modulation of dopamine. It may have to do with c-AMP binding proteins. The answer isn’t known yet but will become more clear with continued research in this area.
What is clear however is that exercise before school leads to better focus, attention, cognition and ultimately better grades.
Blomstrand, P., & Engvall, J. Effects of a Single Exercise Workout on Memory and Learning Functions in Young Adults–a Systematic Review. Translational Sports Medicine.