How does movement help people learn?

In their book, “Brain-based Learning – Teaching the Way Students Really Learn”, Eric Jensen and Liesl McConchie describe research which shows a link between physical movement and learning.

Their take-home message is that physical movement leads to changes in the mind and brain which optimise conditions for learning.

Here’s a flavour of the evidence they report, showing a link between physical movement and attention, memory, mood, health and behaviour.

One of their observations is extraordinary – and we’ll come back to that later.

Attention

Did you know that doing some physical activity before a task will improve your attention? However, if you get into the habit of engaging in sustained physical activity this will increase your attention even more.

It seems that attention is like a muscle – and physical activity is its perfect strength and conditioning partner.

Jensen and McConchie explain how it works “Exercise … regulates norepinephrine and heart rate, which is significant in terms of increasing blood flow to the brain and improving attention”

Memory

Jensen and McConchie explain how physical activity is a key ingredient to improving memory.

They report a study of 1,000 children over an eight year period, linking physical activity with working memory.

Children at age 6 were rated by their parents for the amount of physical activity they engaged with (low physical activity levels versus high physical activity levels).

When the same children reached the age of 14 they had their working memory tested.

The researchers found a relationship between  activity levels and working memory, such that those children who were more active as 6 year olds showed better working memory performance at the age of 14.

Jensen and McConchie explain how it works “Exercise enhances memory ability by triggering the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a natural substance that boosts the ability of neurons to communicate with each other…”

Mood

There is a well-established relationship between physical activity and mood. People who do some physical activity during the day report being in a more positive mood state than people who experience long periods of inactivity.

Jensen and McConchie explain how it works “Exercise releases dopamine in the brain, and a little surge of dopamine is good for our mood.”

Health

There is a very strong link between physical activity and health. Physical activity boosts our immune system and provides protection from illness and disease.

This is important for learning because students with higher fitness levels are less absent from school.

Jensen and McConchie report one study, which followed students’ physical activity and school attendance for three years. The researchers found that those students who increased their physical activity over the period attended more days than those who decreased their physical activity.

The difference in attendance of about 22 days. That’s a lot of missed learning.

Behaviour

There is a strong correlational relationship between movement and better behaviours – such that when students get less physical activity throughout the day then this can be related to an increase in unwanted classroom behavioural issues.

Increasing physical activity can lead to an increase in on-task behaviour.

Many schools have reduced break times and opportunities for physical activities throughout the day, and this is where Jensen and McConchie make an extraordinary connection:

“It may be no coincidence that with the decline in physical activity in school curricula over the last three decades, teen suicides are up, school shootings are up, and teen depression rates are at the highest ever”.

Jensen and McConchie conclude that we should teach our students the joy of physical activity. We should model a healthy lifestyle and be advocates for daily physical activity.

Brain-based Learning – Teaching the Way Students Really Learn by Eric Jensen and Liesl McConchie is published by Corwin

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