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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 ...

To prep for high-school life, incoming Grade 9 students paid an early visit to Midland Secondary on Thursday. They found where their lockers will be, were given their timetables and memorized their wireless passwords.

They also received a short session on the importance of exercise. But intellectual – not physical – fitness was the theme. They learned that classes at this 100-year-old school in Georgian Bay’s cottage country don’t just mean sitting at desk. Here, studying everything from history to calculus also includes soccer in the hallway, ultimate Frisbee in the yard, even “swimming” across the floor – some of the brief workouts known as Spark breaks.

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Classes last 75 minutes, but “I really find it hard to sit for 10 minutes, to be honest,” admits Walker Hunter, a Grade 10 student who was helping to demonstrate floor swimming and other activities at the orientation. During a fitness break, he says, “you get refreshed, but you’re still in work mode, and you can start up again. It gives me time to get out and refocus.”

Getting students to focus is a perennial preoccupation, but it seems especially pressing at the moment, with grade-obsessed parents, politicians and school trustees wringing their hands over Canada’s recent slide in international math standings.

With that worry back in the news this week when Ontario’s elementary math scores took a dip, neuroscience offers this subversive solution: Cut math class to dance – or walk, skip, play catch … the theory being that whatever gets the heart pumping will get the brain humming as well.

“If you want to raise test scores, we have documented evidence – big-time evidence – that that the key is to include fitness-based activity in the day,” insists John Ratey, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and a lead researcher in the area. “There’s no question about it.”

It’s well understood that exercise promotes over-all health. But in the past few years, neuroscientists have made significant strides in quantifying its brain-boosting powers at all stages of life.

One recent study suggested that exercise is an important safeguard against Alzheimer’s disease.

For young minds, the benefits to academic performance and attention are also convincing: Not only do children with higher levels of fitness have a more developed brain structure and perform better on cognitive tests, embedding exercise – even short spells of moderate activity – into classroom time improves focus, retention and test scores.

Last week, researchers at the University of Illinois reported that children who are more fit have better white matter tracts (which affect learning) in their brains, building on earlier work in which they also found higher levels of development in areas of the brain that support critical thinking and memory.

For another study to be published soon, the university’s neurocognitive kinesiology lab conducted a clinical trial with children 7 to 9 years old. Half participated in a two-hour play-based fitness session after classes. Within 160 days, says Charles Hillman, the lab’s leader, those youngsters were found to have a “significant” increase in brain function compared with the control group, and performed better on attention and cognitive tests.

Science suggests that, even in the short term, exercise can be a grade-changer. Earlier research by Dr. Hillman’s team has shown that 20 minutes of easy walking (the children didn’t even break a sweat) boost performance in areas of the brain that support math and reading achievement for up to an hour.

The benefits were seen in kids of all fitness levels. But research has found even greater gains from exercise among children who have attention-deficit disorders – or whose families are less well off and able to provide fewer extracurricular activities.

Theory also applies to college

In June, researchers at Dartmouth College reported that even less aerobic exercise – 12 minutes – increased attention scores for college students. But the improvement was so significant for low-income students that it essentially eliminated the pre-test performance gap with higher-income peers.

The findings, suggests Michelle Tine, co-author of the report, support the notion of having multiple activity sessions interspersed with class time. “It is particularly exciting,” she says, “because quick bouts of exercise are pretty feasible to implement, from both cost and time perspectives.”

Adding more exercise into the school day should be obvious, says Mark Tremblay, an obesity researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

“Sitting idle for long periods of time is a biologically bad idea,” says Prof. Tremblay, who also teaches pediatrics at the University of Ottawa. “You are designed to move, and you should pay attention to that, not repress it.”

If the science is this strong – and the solution so simple – why has this practice not been adopted more universally in the country’s schools? Partly, it’s because a society obsessed with test scores will resist interrupting class time for dancing or running games with such names as “huckle buckle.” Indeed, when Canada’s international math scores took a dive last December, for the third testing period in a row, the remedies that were suggested ranged from better training for teachers to having students go back to memorizing multiplication tables. Parents didn’t call for more hopscotch in the hallway (also popular at Midland Secondary), especially not in high school.

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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Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

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