Movement, health and learning

My last post looked at the connection between brain development, specifically the function of mobility, and the attainment of elite status as an athlete.  Today I’d like to follow up with some thoughts on this as it relates to general physical health and education.

It’s no secret that we have an obesity crisis in this country.  Just take a trip over to your local fast food establishment and have a look around.  What is alarming is how this crisis is affecting our children.  The statistics are astounding.

Here are the facts from the CDC:

  • Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
  • The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period.
  • In 2008, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.


The health consequences of obesity are many and they are all serious.  In the short term, obese children have a much greater chance of developing cardiac risk factors like hypertension and high cholesterol.  The Bogalusa Heart Study, the longest and most detailed heart study of children ever done, found that 70% of obese 5 to 17 year old children had a least one cardiac risk factor.  In the long term, these children run a much greater risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and cancer.

What causes obesity?  It’s really not very complicated.  Except in cases where there is a genetic issue, it’s a simple matter of too many calories being consumed and too few calories being expended.  We eat too much and move too little.  It boils down to poor diet and lack of exercise.  We’ll keep the focus on movement for now and take a look at diet another time.

[callout title=Why physical education?]…movement is a critical element in education because the human brain is the tool through which one becomes educated![/callout]

In their recommendations for what can be done to prevent obesity in children, the CDC says “Schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors. Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity behaviors.”  So how are our schools responding to this call to action?  By ignoring it!  Last month, the New York Times published an article on how schools are eliminating physical education from the curriculum even as the rate of childhood obesity rises.  Why?  Most lay the blame on lack of funding and No Child Left Behind, the government mandate for schools to meet certain testing benchmarks.  With resources tight, any program not related to the three R’s is subject to the axe.  The result is sweeping cuts in arts programs and physical education.

Talk about short sightedness!  Sometimes the dinosaur mentality of the school system is just more than I can take.  The ability to succeed in a classroom is directly related to the ability of the human brain to take in and process information.  The better a child can do that, the more successful he will be.  Learning begins in utero.  It is a neurological process not an academic one.  As such, every human ability is involved in the learning process.  We are constantly learning through our sensory abilities and our motor abilities.  What this means in terms of physical education is that human movement is a critical element in education because the human brain is the tool through which one becomes educated!

Neuroscientists recently discovered that when we exercise we produce a substance called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).  Without getting into the complex chemistry, BDNF essentially acts like a fertilizer in the brain promoting the growth of new neurons, more dendrites and more connections between neurons.  Sound familiar?  So, our brain comes equipped with a built-in fertilizer factory to help it grow and develop.  All we need to do to activate production is get up and move!

Which takes us back to the schools, obesity and physical education.  The reality is that schools ignore this issue because their main goal is the perpetuation of the status quo rather than the welfare of children.  Don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  I know that there are many fantastic teachers out there doing a heroic job with the kids in their care.  What I am talking about is the rigidity of the system.

All one need to do for proof of this is look at an exception.  The school system in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, has embraced daily physical fitness for years because of its impact on brain development, and thus learning and academic performance.  What are the results?  For starters, just about the lowest obesity rate anywhere in the United States.  In 2002-2003 only 3 percent of Naperville high school freshman were overweight.  But the real test is academic performance and once again the Naperville kids shine.  In 1999 Naperville’s eighth graders participated in the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) test which included students from 38 countries.  They finished first in the world in science and sixth in math.

The proof is in the pudding.  What are the rest of our schools waiting for?






8 Responses to Movement, health and learning

  1. So our fields overlap! No big surprise. Our physical health and mental (neurological) health as individuals and as a nation are so tied together. Our chances of changing our schools are equal to our chances of changing our political system. That’s why it is so critical for each of us as parents, teachers, health care professionals etc. to stand up, take the responsibility onto ourselves and do whatever we can to change whatever we can. It starts with educating others, like you’re doing here Charlie – bravo! – providing opportunities outside of school for kids to move move move, and setting an example ourselves of staying fit and eating healthy.

    • Thanks Gail, our fields do indeed overlap in more ways than one! So true about changing the school system. I’m afraid that one is a lost cause. But by each doing our part we can make a difference. In the end, people need to reclaim responsibility for their own health and development rather than leaving those things in the hands of professionals. Thanks for all you do to empower people to do that!

  2. I aim for five visits to gym every week — I usually make it four times. I also try to bike to work three times a week and I am lucky to make that happen twice. That said exercise has all kinds of benefits beyond the physical. I feel better, more alert and do not get as tired. All that oxygen, the endorphins and other stuff that hits your various cells makes them all function better.
    The angle is alos very imporant good food – fresh vegetables, lean protein and very few carbs of any kind. Here is another place where the schools have failed and with a big assist from USDA and big food companies. I look forward to your next post.

    • That’s great Bob! A perfect example of taking personal responsibility for health. The benefits are so clear. It is, after all, precisely how the human body is designed to function at its best! It’s really a beautiful system when you think about it! So true also about diet and the schools. British chef, Jamie Oliver took a crack at changing that one last year and the roadblocks he encountered were beyond belief but ultimately predictable when one knows that the system is set up to perpetuate itself. We’ve all got a lot of work to do!

  3. My son Alex Reightley was a client of Reach Family Institute in the 1990’s. He is now 23 years old and I can honestly say it was our Reach Family “Program” that got him moving, physically and mentally! As a man with Asperger’s he is an amazing athlete. He has competed in bike racing with team Veloce for several years and currently is training and running 1/2 marathon’s very successfully, I might add!. The mind body connection is crucial for the healing of all of our bodies and especially for those with challenges like autism, asperger’s and adhd! Alex’s diet is also impeccable. He will son start his 3rd year of college. Step by step we have healed our family. I went back to college and am now a certified holistic health counselor. Our circle of influence and the lives we can encourage to the path of health is so important! Blessings! Karen

    • Karen – so nice to have you add to the conversation! You should be so proud of Alex’s accomplishments. He’s really quite a guy! We’re certainly proud of the role that we played in putting him on the road to success. Alex is a fantastic example of exactly what we are talking about here. The combination of feeding the body optimally (good nutrition) and using it optimally (appropriate exercise) is incredibly powerful. It literally transforms lives. And how fantastic that your experience with Alex led you to a career helping others! There’s something really quite beautiful about that. Blessings to you, too!

  4. Great article, it’s a real shame that a lot of people are trying to eliminate physical education from schools. It’s vitally important that the next generation remains healthy – both mentally and physically!

    • Glad you liked the article. It really is frustrating that, in the face of so much evidence for the importance of physical fitness for health, brain function and learning, the powers that be continue with their slash and burn policy. But, as I said, their main interest is in perpetuating their existence not in doing what is best for children. So we must soldier on and inform as many parents as possible until the message can’t be ignored!

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