You know the feeling as you’re walking into PE class… The dread of sprints, the fear of dodgeball, the annoying showoffs who can somehow run a mile in under ten minutes without keeling over and dying on the spot from exertion. Unbearable, right?
Or maybe you were actually athletic — unlike me — and loved PE! You were sporty enough to do well, liked goofing off with your friends, and didn’t feel tortured when it came time to choose teams.
Maybe you were even a ‘dumb jock’…
The ‘dumb jock’ is a trope that everyone knows. Mainstream media portrays the idea that kids who are great on the field or on the court are not so great in class or at a desk. Many people assume there’s a correlation here: athleticism=stupid. Is that even true?
No matter how you felt about PE, I think we can all agree that PE stood more for Pointless Exercises than Physical Education…
Source: shorturl.at/ejkWZMy Mission
This summer, I took it upon myself to start caring about how what I do affects my mind and body. When I realized how important that was, I decided to make it my goal to get others to care about how what they do affects them cognitively and physiologically.
This led me to reach out to Dr. Charles Hillman and Dr. Art Kramer after reading their research paper Be Smart, Exercise Your Heart. Currently, they both work at the Northeastern Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, running experiments to determine what lifestyle factors influence the brain. They definitely changed my mindset when it comes to exercise!
After telling them about my mission (to get other teens passionate about mental and physical health) and how that related to their studies in exercise, the topic drifted to PE the important role PE plays in teaching kids healthy lifestyle skills.
What are we teaching kids about exercise in PE?
Faith: “PE is definitely physical, but do schools do a good job when it comes to actually educating teens on exercise?”
Hillman: “We are obviating physical activity from our lifestyles. We used to have to spend energy to get energy. We had to hunt, forage. Now, push a couple buttons, and a pizza arrives at the door, right? We use elevators over taking the stairs, kids drive to school instead of walking…
“What that means is that physical education becomes even more important.
PE not only gives you a chance to be physically active; it gives you the opportunity to learn different physical activity behaviors and build efficacy.”
In my experience, PE typically does a pretty poor job of both…
Faith: “PE for me was hell. It was a lot of me feeling like I was making a fool out of myself due to the stamina I lacked, and not a lot of me learning how I could incorporate exercise into my daily life. Badminton and PACER tests aren’t applicable to the average kid!
“This feeling that these exercises were a chore, not super integral to my life, definitely influenced my lack of a motivation to get up and get moving.”Do teens even care about exercise?
If PE isn’t doing a good job of educating kids on how and when and how much to exercise, how many teens are actually getting the right amount of exercise?”
Hillman: “We just released the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans report. You can see teenagers are supposed to get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day of the week, not including at least two to three days a week of time spent engaged in muscle and bone building exercises.
60–75% of the US population does NOT achieve those guidelines.”
Skimping on the sit-ups because you’d rather sit down and watch The Office (we’ve all been there, it’s ok to admit it) may contribute to unhealthiness that compounds into disease later on in life. We know this, and most of us still choose Youtube over yoga. Well… maybe you’re watching yoga tutorials on Youtube, but that’s besides the point!
https://media.giphy.com/media/JQtjrjz75ttYY/giphy.gifKids who are exercising are reaping the benefits…
Faith: “Many kids my age aren’t getting the right amount of exercise, but what benefits do you see in the kids who are?”
Kramer: “We know there’s a whole multitude of changes from exercise. There are a couple of regions in the brain where new neurons can grow throughout the lifespan. One of them is in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory.
“ We know from research in exercise that new neurons tend to be born more frequently if you are an exerciser than not.” 🤔
Faith: “Woah! I always thought exercising built up your muscles, not your brain and its cognitive abilities! Are these benefits long term or short term?”
Hillman: “Chronic exercise decreases your risk of adult onset diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, as well as Alzheimers, and dementia.”
Kramer: “Physical activity can offset or at least give you more time without getting such a serious disease. If you had an extra two or three years, most of us would be happy to take it.” ⏳
Faith: “It’s so great to hear about all the physical benefits of exercise! I’m also interested in the brain; do you know anything about how exercise affects mental health?”
Hillman: “Being physically active is beneficial to a host of mental health disorders; depression, anxiety;
“We know that girls who play team sports are 90% less likely to get pregnant in high school and being physically active makes you less likely to abuse drugs.”Source: shorturl.at/eKV13What does any of this have to do with cognition?
Let’s get really into it; exercise affects your neurons, but what does that even mean?
Kramer: “We know the most about aerobics,
bicycling 🚴♀jogging and running 🏃♀️swimming 🏊♀️
“We know they have all these positive effects on cognition, memory, and problem solving. Some Eastern practices also increase cognitive function:
Yoga 🧘Tai Chi,Martial arts and self-defense 🥋
Aerobic activity increases synaptogenesis, which is the creation of connections between neurons.”
More, faster, better connections means more memory, faster problem solving, and better attention!
Kramer: “These exercises build up the vascular bed (arteries and veins) so you can supply the brain with more nutrients and blood ❤️ The mitochondria also become more efficient, and they become more numerous as a function of exercise.” ⚡
When and how much exercise?
Faith: “So how much exercise and at what time of day will impact study skills in teens?”
I know that without some kind of reward, I’m not moving my butt off of the couch…
Hillman: “A single 20-minute ‘dose’ of moderate walking any time of day will bring you benefits for up to an hour. And we’ve shown that as little as nine minutes of high intensity interval training (HIIT) will do the same thing.” 🏃♀️
The slight beneficial increases in synaptogenesis and cardiovascular strength gained from a short ‘dose’ of exercise will affect the way you learn.
Chronic exercise improves the areas of your brain activated in math and reading!This infographic from Hillman and Kramer’s article depicts the correlation between exercise and achievement in math and reading. The majority of kids who exercise less than an hour a day actually score lower on all in math and reading than kids who incorporated aerobic exercise into their daily lifestyles.
As stated in Be Smart Exercise Your Heart, “Research that examined the functional neuroanatomy of reading comprehension revealed an activation of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and parietal/posterior cingulate cortex (PCC).
Mathematical calculations and numerical magnitude processing have also been linked to the bilateral regions of the intraparietal sulcus in children and adults.”
This is a complicated way of saying that exercise activates the frontoparietal network, which is the same network used when reading and doing math problems. It makes sense that children who exercise more regularly would score higher in the areas of math and reading!
So are dumb jocks actually dumb?
Faith: “It’s crazy to think that the body-mind connection is so profound! Society propagates the idea that jocks are dumb and athletes don’t do well as well as other kids in school.”
Hillman: “If you break it down, it’s actually just football and basketball players that don’t have the same GPA, due to the culture of both sports encouraging players to take easier classes and prioritize their game play. 🤓
If you remove those football and basketball and you look at all the other varsity sports in college, you find that student athletes actually have a higher GPA than the normal population.”Source: shorturl.at/aqW29Debunking another myth: the standing desk
Faith: “Most teens can walk and put 20 minutes aside every day to engage in physical activity! Does it get any simpler than walking? I know a lot of people who swear that using standing desks for a couple hours every day increase their cognition as well. ”
Hillman: “Just standing up is not aerobic exercise; the heart does not undergo a significant enough amount of effort. I’ve yet to see any beneficial results, some results actually suggest that standing for long periods of time may be problematic for some of the joints and the lower back in certain populations.” 👎
Source: shorturl.at/flSWYGood Ol’ Introspection
Interviewing Dr. Hillman and Dr. Kramer made me think. Have I been practicing what these doctors are preaching?
The answer is no: I haven’t been getting the recommended amount of physical activity every day. Armed with this new information, I now know that even smaller amounts of exercise are extremely beneficial to the brain in the long run, and there are so many different ways to choose from!
Cultivating a healthy lifestyle of chronic exercise does not mean herculean efforts in physical activity; it means being more mindful of how what we do — or many don’t do — will affect us now, and later on in life. Also, who doesn’t want every possible advantage to ace their exams? I know I do!
I used to spend a lot of my time joking about ‘dumb jocks’, but now I’m working out like one and realizing that maybe I was the dumb one after all…
Key Takeaways:Physical activity is being obviated from our lifestyles; we have to make it a priority to include it daily 🏋️Exercising now could save you from developing adult onset diseases, ❤️decrease symptoms of mental illness, and discourage risky teen behaviors!20 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise any time of day can have cognitive benefits of increased memory, focus, and problem solving skills lasting up to an hour 🤯Exercise activates areas in your brain that are also activated when computing math and reading. That means more exercise = higher test scores (it’s already been shown in other kids; why not you?) 🧠Simply incorporating more standing into your day probably won’t do anything but hurt your jointsGoal for this week: Walk 20 minutes every day to start reaping the benefits of chronic physical activity!
Make sure to leave a clap on this article and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask questions about the interviews, talk to me about what sports (I’m a field hockey goalie 🏑), or chat more about different ways we can increase our cognitive abilities! Many thanks to Dr. Charles Hillman and Dr. Art Kramer for all their help in educating me on this! All of the information in this article came from my interviews with them and my research into their paper, Be Smart, Exercise Your Heart.
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