Exercise and the Brain

by Sarah McAuliffe

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We all know the choice: brains or brawn? Our culture sometimes treats our body and mind as if they were unrelated, but the effects of exercise target both body and mind. Dr. John J. Ratey of Harvard Medical School goes so far to say that “building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects” of exercise and exercise is more meant to condition the brain. Several studies have been done proving exercise’s benefits to brain function. Neuroscientists have found strong links between exercise and increased levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine – three important neurotransmitters that traffic thoughts and emotions. More than that, exercise also releases growth factors that confirm connections between brain cells and increase the size of certain parts of the brain, such as the frontal lobe. Exercising prepares the mind to learn and retain new information. But don’t just take my word for it! Let’s look at the case study of Naperville Central High School.

Naperville, IL has one of the fittest student body in the nation – with only 3% of the sophomore class being overweight compared to the national average of 30%. This is due to their revolutionary physical education program. The aim at Naperville is to instill in students good fitness and exercise habits as opposed to just exposure to sports. Some freshmen literacy students have volunteered to participate in aerobic exercise training before first period. The goal is to prepare the brain for learning. At the end of the semester, literacy students showed a 17% improvement in comprehension, compared to the 10.7% improvement in the students that opted out of the program. Not only are literacy students improving, but Naperville’s entire student body has improved. Naperville students scored higher on mandatory state tests than the more wealthy schools in the district. More importantly, Naperville students scored much higher than the national average on the TIMMS standardized test, which is meant to compare students across the world. The Naperville district scored first in the world in the science section and sixth in the world in the math section. Compare this to the national ranking of the United States as eighteenth in science and nineteenth in math! This exercise program has had proven effects on the brain! Think about that the next time you go for your jog!

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