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Sydney Lawrie, left, and Georgia Grundmanis do the ‘huckle buckle’ for Midland Secondary’s newcomers. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)
Sydney Lawrie, left, and Georgia Grundmanis do the ‘huckle buckle’ for Midland Secondary’s newcomers. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)

How physical exercise helps to get students intellectually fit Add to ...

Canada’s students now spend more time sitting at a desk than those in many other industrialized countries. The curriculum in Ontario, for example, requires daily exercise for younger students, although educators quietly admit that the policy is applied inconsistently. In fact, fewer than half of all elementary schools in the country now have a dedicated phys-ed teacher trained for the job.

Most secondary students need to take just one phys-ed course, so gym is usually a class to get out of the way in Grade 9. (Manitoba is the only province that still requires a credit for each year.)

This pattern is mirrored in a steep drop in over-all activity levels as Canadian children grow up. While 84 per cent of youngsters who are 3 or 4 receive their recommended 180 minutes of physical activity a day, only 7 per cent of those 5 to 11 get the 60 minutes considered necessary for them – and the figure drops to merely 4 per cent for children 12 to 17.

Not only have a growing number of schools decided to reverse the trend, a new private-public partnership to be announced next month and backed by $4.8-million in federal funding over the next five years will bring an early-morning exercise regimen to another 450 schools across the country. In the United States, as part of Sparking Life, a program developed by Dr. Ratey at Harvard, some schools offer voluntary activity time before the bell rings, while others have made room during the day for 30 minutes of mandatory exercise. The approach has been adopted by eight schools in Ontario’s Niagara Region, after a 2011 pilot project reported higher scores in math and reading comprehension among struggling students who participated in daily fitness sessions.

But more schools are also adopting the approach being used in Midland and embedding exercise between Shakespeare and algebra.

Alison Cameron, a special-education teacher in Saskatoon, was one of the first in Canada to put her students on treadmills to improve their concentration. Since then she has helped to bring the concept to classrooms across North America, including almost 50 aboriginal schools in Saskatchewan.

In addition to Midland, which introduced them last year, at least four high schools in Simcoe County now use Spark breaks as teaching strategies.

“It’s a little counter-intuitive,” says Russell Atkinson, the pioneering principal who made Barrie Central Collegiate the first school in the area to try the approach in 2011.

“You take some time away from the curriculum and do some things that don’t appear to be related. We saw amazing results. The teachers said just the improvement in mood was worth it.”

The program easily included students who weren’t star athletes, he says, and concerns that classes would have trouble settling down never materialized. There’s no evidence that 15 minutes or so spent tossing a ball or walking the hall hindered learning. Rather, Barrie Central’s math scores rose by more than 10 per cent over the 2012-2013 school year. As well, there were more passing grades for students in English and math – and fewer behavioural problems and suspensions.

“I definitely find myself more focused,” says Rachel Pigott, a Grade 11 student at Barrie Central. Last year, her math teacher would call for an exercise break after introducing a new subject area.

“It’s just a really nice time to let the lesson sink it,” she explains. “When you come back in, it’s a fresh look at the work.”

Now, when she does her homework, Rachel takes her own timeouts to shoot baskets or take a walk. “I know the benefit of taking a break.”

A double payoff

Dr. Hillman’s lab in Illinois has produced more than 100 research papers on exercise and learning. He says that, if he were to design a school day, it would look a lot like the one in Barrie or Midland.

Not only are there immediate benefits, he says, the 10 minutes for every hour or so of class time add up to a sizable chunk of the daily recommended total for exercise, which has been shown to produce long-term brain improvement for students.

“Everybody comes back and says there are positive effects behaviourally, emotionally, academically, and asks, ‘Why isn’t everyone doing it?’ ” says Ms. Cameron, clearly frustrated. “But the people making the decisions aren’t putting the practice into place. I don’t understand it.”

According to Prof. Tremblay in Ottawa, adding exercise to the school day has no downside. At best, as the science suggests, grades improve. At worst, they stay flat, but at least students are more active. He predicts that, before long, the public will be warned against sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time – even to learn your fractions.

Perhaps more important in the long run than math scores, he adds, young people will learn something fundamental about the role of physical activity – the kind that doesn’t require all-star skills and a team uniform. A little floor swimming may be just what your brain needs.

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