If You Want To Develop the Mind, Don’t Neglect the Body!
How many times do you have to lose your keys before you start playing Sudoku or tackling the daily NY Times crossword puzzle to keep your mind sharp? Just ask a baby boomer: they’ll surely have the answer. The boomers have learned to keep their aging minds honed through cognitive challenges, as well as through a host of funky sounding supplements such as Ginko Biloba and St. John’s Wort. But there are other ways to keep the mind healthy. According to the neuroscientists at the most recent Learning and the Brain conference, the most direct way to maintain the mind, and encourage higher order cognition and executive functions (e.g. planning, organizing, problem solving), may be to take better care of our physical bodies.
Because the motor systems and the cognitive systems overlap in the brain, learning to train our bodies and perfect motor movements–using attention, concentration, inhibition–has a profound impact on our cognitive systems. Additionally, sustained exercise gives our brains a fabulous chemical cocktail–serotonin, endogenous morphine, dopamine–known to diminish anxiety and depression and heighten feelings of general well-being. For those looking to heighten their focus, regulate their stress and anxiety levels and improve emotional regulation, there are few activities as valuable as rigorous aerobic exercise.
As schools struggle with increasing academic demands and shrinking resources, many are tempted to cut PE programs, which seem to have no bearing on CRCT scores or Regent’s exam scores, the metrics against which they are evaluated. However, in cutting out PE and consigning students to 7 hours behind a desk, they are doing a great disservice to their students and undermining their own educational objectives.
One school district west of Chicago, the Naperville School District, rather than cutting its PE program, completely reinvigorated it, implementing a program of rigorous aerobic activity for its 19,000 students. Each morning the students participated in 40 minutes of aerobic exercise and, for 10 minutes, kept their heart rates elevated between 145-185 beats per minute. The vigorous exercise yielded positive physical outcomes: the obesity rate plummeted to 3%, compared to the 30% rate experienced by surrounding communities. Possibly more surprising is the effect the program had on the students’ brains. Math and science scores subsequently increased, and behavioral problems decreased. For those students diagnosed with ADHD, the benefits were significant: focus increased and emotional regulation improved. All of the findings are outlined in Harvard Professor, John Ratey’s book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. The research provides a compelling argument for keeping physical activity at the forefront of education. Take care of the body, and you consequently take care of the brain.
Dr. William Stixrud, a researcher interested in the mind-body educational connection explored in the Naperville study, was one of the most entertaining keynote speakers at the Learning and the Brain conference. He jumpstarted his lecture, “Why Movement and Meditation Are Important For Attention, Motivation and Learning,” by asking the audience to stand up and engage in a series of exercises, designed to activate both our brains and our bodies. He promised us that if we did his exercises and risked looking silly, we’d all stay fully engaged and awake during his presentation. For 60 seconds we did the Brain GymTM “cross-crawl,” touching our right elbows to our left knees and then our left elbows to our right knees and then repeating. It was fun, and, for what it’s worth, I did stay awake and interested during his entire presentation.
Dr. Stixrud spoke of the challenges facing today’s high school students and their impact on students’ cognitive abilities. High school students are expected to take on more and more college level courses, and the level of competition in school is rising to new levels. Consequently, students are paying the price. For today’s adolescents, base cortisol (stress hormone) levels are up, and, for many, sleep deprivation is becoming the norm. The combination of increased stress and fatigue leads to a lower level of mental efficiency to handle the heightened course load required of most high school students.
By the time students arrive at college, many have reached a state of near exhaustion. In College of the Overwhelmed, the chief of Mental Health services at Harvard, Dr. Richard D. Kadison, and health and science author, Theresa Foy DiGeronimo, M.Ed, paint a bleak picture of the mental health of our college-aged students. Kadison and DiGeronimo’s research reveals that during their college careers 50% of students will become seriously depressed, and 10% will consider suicide. Students will use a variety of coping strategies to handle the stress levels, from substance abuse to self- mutilation (cutting, which has reached proportions as high as 20% at universities such as Princeton according to a 2006 study.)
In order to counter the stresses that high school and college level students face and give students the best chance to succeed, Dr. Stixrud advocates recruiting the body to help the mind regulate. For some students the control and focus acquired through dance will help stimulate executive functioning. For others, vigorous aerobic exercise will yield many positive outcomes, as outlined in the Naperville research. For those willing to try something completely different, mindfulness and transcendental meditation will allow students to quiet and reorient their minds in a more coherent, organized way. Dr. Stixrud and his colleagues have found the use of meditation decreases anxiety disorders and depression, facilitates stress regulation, and decreases symptoms of ADHD.
As the frontiers of science are revealing to us, our bodies can both nourish and regulate our minds. If we seek to achieve a greater degree of mastery over our neurochemistry, our mood, our ability to self-regulate, we would be wise to ally ourselves with our bodies. For students who are looking for an academic advantage, and a little inner-peace to boot, they may need to look no further than the running shoes or the yoga mats in their closets.