November 9, 1999
The Boston Globe
Reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic. And running? Emerging new research in animals and humans suggests physical exercise may boost brain function, improve mood and otherwise increase learning, according to findings presented Monday at a meeting of neuroscientists and educators.
While it's too soon to conclude that children who don't exercise fare worse in school, the research raises questions about the recent national trend toward cutting physical education programs, say some scientists and educators.
Such cutbacks are "a crime" considering the new research showing exercise's benefit to the brain by improving blood flow and spurring cell growth, said Dr. John J. Ratey, clinicalassociate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Ratey presented some of the latest findings at a Boston conference entitled "Learning and the Brain."
A 1997 survey by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the latest available, found that only one state — Illinois — mandates daily physical education for students in kindergarten through 12th grades, even though federal guidelines call for such regular activity.
Massachusetts still has on the books a requirement that K-12 students participate in physical education, but the requirement that a minimum amount of time be spent each week has been eliminated, according to Joyce Tolken, past president of the Massachusetts Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
The three-day meeting drew about 2,000 neuroscientists and educators from around the country to explore the potential for brain research to reshape classroom practice.
In addition to the findings about physical exercise and brain function, educators Monday learned what the latest animal research is showing about the ability to grow new brain cells and what the latest developmental psychology studies are revealing about how young children learn. They also heard how to structure a classroom to take advantage of the latest brain research findings.
But the findings about physical activity and brain function seemed the most intriguing, reflecting a growing understanding of the brain's amazing ability to adapt and develop.
"It's helpful to think of the brain as a muscle," said Ratey to hundreds of people attending his session entitled "The Care and Feeding of the Brain."
"One of the best ways to maximize the brain is through exercise, movement," Ratey said. "Everybody feels better after exercise. There's a reason for it."
Ratey cited a variety of research in animals and humans, showing how physical exercise increases cerebral blood flow and levels of a brain-cell growth hormone. He also pointed to studies of exercise's positive effect on mood-altering brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
Physicians are already starting to take advantage of some of these findings in treating depressed patients. For instance, one study of depressed cancer patients found that those who were prescribed exercise saw a more than 40 percent drop in their scores on tests measuring depression, according to Ratey.
"Exercise on its own can function for some people as an antidepressant," Ratey said.
Elizabeth Gould, a Princeton University neurobiologist who also spoke at Monday's conference, cited research by California scientists in mice showing that physical activity increases the number of brain cells in the hippocampus, and that learning improved with exercise.
While her own animal research has not looked at the effect of physical activity, it has shown that the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus increases with exposure to female sex hormones and with learning, while it is slowed by exposure to stress hormones.
But Gould urged caution in using animal research as a basis for educators to change classroom practice. "I think what's interesting from the perspective of education is that this is new information about how the brain works, and it also gives us a sense of how the brain is structurally changing throughout life."
Physical education teachers like Jean Blaydes of Richardson, Texas, and Tolken, who heads up the program at Wellesley public schools, say they are convinced by the research so far and their own experience of the importance of exercise to schoolchildren. Physical activity adds to the children's overall education and keeps them from becoming obese as so many children and adults are in this country, they say.
"Yet we are cutting physical education programs left and right," said Blaydes, an elementary school physical education teacher who attended Ratey's talk. The research suggests that exercise "seems to be really important in the learning process," she said, yet physical education programs are often "considered fluff."
Tolken, who was not at the conference but is aware of the scientific findings and concerned about the general trend toward cutting physical education programs, said, "What we're doing in the schools, I think, flies in the face of research."
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