Beyond the Classroom: The impact of exercise on brain development and academic achievement.
As parents we want to see our children grow into strong, healthy, well-adjusted, happy adults, able to fulfil their abilities and flourish. We know that exercise is important to our kid’s wellness profile. It oxygenates the body and brain, releasing feel-good hormones and if we’re physically well – we feel mentally well. We know our children should exercise and many parents get wrought with guilt when they contemplate the time their child spends sedentary or on screens. There is plenty of information on media outlets about this being “bad”. But do we fully understand why? Yes it impedes on the time possibly spent in physical activity, but why is that so much more important? Would it be shocking if I added that science is showing that for brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time spent playing? Even a formal, structured physical education class may not offer the same benefit as free-play recess. Reduced time for physical activity may be contributing to the discordant academic abilities between boys and girls; schools promoting sedentary styles of learning become a harder environment for kids, and more so for boys, to navigate successfully.
When left to their own devices, children gravitate towards unstructured free play. The brain builds new circuits in the frontal lobe to help it navigate new situations and social interactions. Sadly, some children are given less time for free, exploratory play as they are hurried to adapt into adult roles and prepare for their future at earlier ages. Parents receive carefully marketed messages that good parents encourage their children to excel at every opportunity, buy a plethora of enrichment tools, and ensure their children participate in a wide range of activities. Children are exposed to this from early infancy as well as specialised books and toys designed to ensure that they are well-rounded and adequately stimulated for excelled development. There is an abundance of after-school enrichment activities. With clever marketing, many parents have grown to believe they are essential to good parenting and necessary for appropriate development. So much of parent-child time is spent arranging or transporting children between activities. It is unclear at what point a young person may be “over-scheduled” to their developmental detriment or emotional distress. Free child-driven play is decreased, and the downtime that allows parents and children some of the most productive time for interaction and brain growth is at a premium. Let’s look at the specific brain regions widely influenced by play and crucial for academic success.
Frontal Cortex – Executive Functions (the CEO of our brain)
Changes in the frontal lobe during childhood helps wire up the brain’s Executive Function’s (EF), or CEO of the brain. It plays a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems. Research supports the importance of EF for school success across childhood and adolescence. Moreover studies by Blair and Razza (2007) found EF skills to be more important than IQ, as EF in preschool was related to kindergarten measures of maths and literacy ability. Previous research found EF to be critical to career success, making/keeping friends, and marital success. EF is called the “CEO of the brain, it enables children to plan, organise, keep track of time, remember, prioritise, pay attention, and commence, persist and finalise tasks and draw on past experience to solve current problems. The skills that are affected by difficulties in this area of the brain are: impulse control, inhibition, emotional control, flexibility, self-monitoring, working memory, planning and prioritising, task initiation and organising. The main conditions linked to difficulties in this area are attention deficit, hyperactivity/impulsivity, learning difficulties as well as mood disorders. Proper executive functioning is crucial for classroom learning and academic success. Play can prepare a young brain to properly and efficiently navigate schoolwork.
Strengthening the CEO
So what is the connection between executive functioning and free play? Let’s look at what happens when a child wants to use the slide in a busy playground; they can’t just shove through, they would most likely get pushed aside with a harsh scolding. A child has to stop, observe the situation, stand in line or change activity. These are all executive functions. Most play involves exploration and is, by definition, an act of investigation. It’s easy to see how this applies to a budding scientist playing with magnets, but with rough and tumble play kids are testing social bonds and learning how to control their impulses, so that friendly wrestling doesn’t turn into anti-social aggression. This again recruits the frontal lobe EF functions. Whether in rough-and-tumble play or two kids building a sand castle together, the kids have to negotiate “what are we going to do in this game, what are the rules we are going to follow, who’s going to go first etc?” This fully uses all the skills of the EF (inhibition, planning, set-shifting, flexibility of thought, attention to the rules, organisation) and therefor strengthens this area of the brain. Furthermore, take pretend play, it has been correlated with two crucial skill sets–the ability to self-regulate (impulse, emotions, attention) and the ability to reason counterfactually. You can’t pretend with another person unless you both agree about what you are pretending. Players must conform to a set of rules, and practice conforming to such rules might help kids develop better self-control (inhibition-an EF function). Additionally, when these skills are used during movement it amplifies the connections. When moving we secrete a neurotropin called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which strengthens neural connections. If a physical game involves a cognitive task a child benefits more. Your brain is on fire because it’s being used for the aerobic part, but some parts are being asked to search and switch.
Chatter between the Right and Left Hemispheres
There is more to understand when considering academic success. Interhemispheric connectivity is a factor often overlooked. When viewed from the top, the human brain looks like a walnut: two large lobes partially separated by a split down the middle. Though physically identical, each hemisphere specialises in different things. Creative tasks—composing, conceptualising, brainstorming—are more typically associated with the right. Logical functions—calculation, translation, data sorting—are usually done on the left. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. But while pop psychology would have us believe one side of your brain is “dominant” over the other, it’s not that simple. When you write a note, your right hemisphere forms the tone and considers the social repercussions. The left hemisphere translates it into language. When your right hand types, it’s controlled by the left hemisphere; meanwhile, the right hemisphere tells the left hand to stay still. Both hemispheres work together for almost everything, and the corpus callosum is their link. This is the information superhighway, carrying data between right and left through 250 million electrical connections. “Interhemispheric coordination” describes how well those connections work to form rational, appropriate action. Einstein’s brain was the same size as yours, but his corpus callosum was extraordinarily thick, allowing him to take an idea or concept and explain it in an equation better than most. The corpus callosum is the largest white matter tract and is hypothesised to play a primary role in cognition. Emerging evidence suggests that a weakened callosum directly contributes to a decline of cognitive function, whereas increased thickness in typical childhood development correlates with intelligence, processing speed and problem-solving. A growing body of literature reports that subtle structural changes may correlate with cognitive and behavioural deficits, even for individuals in the normal IQ range. Primarily, individuals with partly missing corpus callosums show deficits in problem-solving and processing speed. These two skills are imperative in academic learning and success. Preliminary evidence suggests that impairments in domains such as abstract reasoning, verbal fluency and second-order linguistic deficits as well as social cognition, may indeed be secondary to core problem-solving and processing speed deficits in individuals. Exercise improves interhemispheric coordination. For example most table-tennis players have to play equally well on both sides of their bodies, requiring a degree of interhemispheric coordination almost unmatched in other sports. These players aren’t born great; repetitive play builds up the corpus callosum like a muscle, so a lifetime of table tennis can turn it into a finely tuned instrument. Some researchers such as Dennison and his wife Hannaford created BrainGym, prescribing 26 midline-crossing exercises to enhance interhemispheric coordination. The exercises “recall the movements naturally done during the first years of life” when learning to coordinate the eyes, ears, hands and body. The theory of repeating “primal movement patterns” is becoming popular in many children’s exercise programs. Exercise can speed up this process by forming new neurons, and pruning the old ones, faster. In other words, children can rewire correct behaviours quicker and overrule negative responses.
The importance of Equilibrium (Vestibular System/Cerebellum)
Natural play and exercises hone “the core”, all your muscles to hold you straight or keep you taut. This is directed by a part of the brain to the rear dorsal part of the brain called the cerebellum which encourages memory, learning, social skills, emotion and attention. You can train the cerebellum, which is what you’re doing when you’re working on core exercises. We used to think it was just about physical coordination, but it’s really coordinating all of our higher functions.
If you are dis-coordinated physically, some things are often out of the norm intellectually/emotionally as well. The Vestibular system (located in the inner ear) is one of the systems that send information about motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation to the cerebellum, equally there is a feedback loop from the cerebellum to the vestibular system. This system is one of the pivotal mechanisms in the human body, generally recognised as a system of balance. A functioning vestibular system contributes to sensory integration and eye movement, imperative for reading and learning. In fact, delayed vestibular maturation correlates significantly with sensory integration dysfunction, slow visual processing speed, and reading disability. A well calibrated vestibular system working efficiently also promotes memory, learning, social skills and emotional adjustment.
More studies are linking vestibular function to school performance. Franco and Panhoca (2008) showed a statistically significant association between vestibular alteration and poor academic performance. Others (e.g. smith et al, 2005) discovered people with vestibular disorders are likely to experience cognitive disorders. Therapies designed to readdress the vestibular system incorporate activities which will sound familiar. They are things that children do naturally and in play: rocking, swinging, spinning, rolling, cart-wheeling, hanging upside down, moving from side to side—challenge the vestibular system and thereby force its development. Healthy kids do all this naturally because their bodies instinctively know it is needed. That’s why young children are in constant motion, stimulating their vestibular apparatus and challenging their equilibrium and skills against the Earth’s gravity from the first time they lift their head. How many times have you seen a toddler stick its head on the ground and backside in the air? The vestibular system requires movement to develop and, if properly administered, produces amazing results.
When you use self-control to refrain from lashing out, doing something you shouldn’t or turn taking the frontal lobe is working. Children often do things they shouldn’t because their frontal lobe is underdeveloped. The more work done to thicken the fibres connecting the neurons, the better the ability to control behaviour. When stimulated, these fibres will thicken. Studies show children who played video games were halting the process of brain development and affecting inhibition and their ability to control potentially anti-social elements of their behavior. Video games are creating a generation of children far more disposed to violence than their parents, according to a new study. It shows that the tendency to lose control (lack of inhibition) is not due to children absorbing the aggression involved in the game itself as previously suggested, but rather to the damage done by stunting the developing mind, mainly the frontal lobes (executive functions). Brain-mapping expert Professor Ryuta Kawashima found these games only stimulated activity in the parts of the brain associated with vision and movement. He states: ‘There is a problem we will have with a new generation of children who play computer games that we have never seen before.
The implications are very serious and these children will be doing more and more bad things if they are playing games and not doing other things like reading aloud, learning arithmetic or sports.’ His concluding advice was: ‘Children need to be encouraged to learn basic reading and writing, of course, but the other thing is to ask them to play outside with other children and communicate with others as much as possible.’ Further studies show gray matter atrophy (shrinkage or loss of tissue volume) in children who play video games. White matter is equally seen to be compromised translating to a loss of brain communication, reduced cortical thickness, less efficient data processing and reduced impulse inhibition. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe (housing the Executive Functions), which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties and largely determines success in every area of life—from sense of well-being to academic or career success and relationship skills. See Kuhn (2011); Hann (2011); Hou (2012); Dong & Devito (2013); Weng (2012); Weng (2013); Lin (2012) for reviews).
Many sports work specific areas of development, however, in the era where so much time is spent on screens and sedentary, there is one sport that recently piqued my interest. This sport seems to have taken a lot of components of what happens naturally in child’s free play, specifically catering to the flexing of the executive functions, vestibular system, cerebellum and interhemispheric communication. One day I stood on the steps of the CrossFit gym in Terre Sainte, looking beyond the giddy, giggly kids and saw the ingredients of what they were doing. Far beyond muscle building, it was brain building. CrossFit Kids has a unique opportunity to target vestibular development through proper programming with a varied use of challenging activities in the WOD, buy-ins and cash-outs. They swing, roll over, do handstands, cartwheels, toes-to-bars, knees-to-elbows, wheelbarrows, and bar and ring work. Agility work is used to challenge the vestibular system as well as inter-hemispheric communication, e.g. hurdling, dot drills, agility ladders (feet and hands), lateral hops and runs.
Much of these exercises are involving the executive functions, whether moving your body or an external object through space you are solving a problem. It is not your muscles doing this, it’s your brain. Take games like “une, deux, trois soleil”(a game played at CrossFit) this is pure attention, inhibition and planning a complete game to directly exercises and flex this frontal function! Consider additionally the secretion of brain-derived neurotrophic factor which released when they move and helps make neural connections stronger. The cerebellum is activated when you activate your core. Exercises like burpees, requiring inter-hemispheric coordination and use of core musculature is one of the fundamental movements in CrossFit, teaching coordination, core strength and data transfer between right and left hemispheres. The implications of training both brain and body reach far beyond the classroom. Exercise isn’t just about heart rates and blood pressure. By getting our kids moving in this way, we are improving their odds for appropriate development and future success in multiple areas of daily functioning.
In order to succeed academically we need executive functioning. If one cannot pay attention, organise work, inhibit responses, shift ideas, plan tasks and see them to completion, it will be difficult to get ahead. We must ensure quick and effective communication between right and left hemispheres promoting proper reading, writing, speech and thought communication. A well calibrated vestibular system working efficiently promotes memory, learning, social skills and emotional adjustment.
One interesting study consisting of students from King Chavez Primary Academy, San Diego studied the implementation of CrossFit Kids in school. Students participated in workouts for at 30 minutes every day, while other classes received PE once a week over six weeks. After 6 weeks, standardised test results showed that 100% of the students in the treatment group scored proficient or advanced in mathematics. This was an achievement that to date had never been accomplished at that school, and rose 15% from the previous year.
In English Language 36% of the students scored proficient or advanced, a 12% rise from the previous year. This increase in the core subjects was accomplished despite the fact that students were out of the classroom and away from direct instruction for 30 minutes a day for CrossFit Kids. The previously cited argument that participation in daily fitness classes takes away from academic performance had no place in this research project.
However, in a day and age where our kid’s activities are so highly organised and electronics have taken a large chunk of free time, there is little time left for activities that flex the muscles for academic success. There are many sports that will target some of the areas discussed, however, CrossFit Kids has taken steps to re-introduce what kids so naturally gravitate towards and which works all these areas in harmony, in a fun environment. Every child can benefit, kids with learning and social/emotional difficulties can particularly reap benefits from this “brain multivitamin”. It is vital that children go beyond the classroom. Free play and sports are crucial, we need to understand the brain needs these to grow, strengthen and gain speed. Only with this basis can our children truly flourish.
About the Author:
Laurence van Hanswijck de Jonge, MSc, PhD, is a Developmental Neuropsychologist and Coach who provides educational and neuropsychological assessments for English speaking children between the ages of 3 and 18. Her practice is rooted in Positive Psychology and her belief in the importance of letting our children flourish through building on their innate strengths. She is certified by the University of Pennsylvania, USA, to run the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy based resilience building programme for children. She is also a CogMed coach, an evidence-based Working Memory Training program (computer-based) which sustainably improves attention by training working memory.