A study conducted in the small town of Naperville, Illinois, revealed that physical exercise can dramatically improve learning abilities by increasing attention, concentration, and memory skills. When high school students at Naperville High participated in an unusual exercise program called Zero Hour, their scores on an international test for math and science skyrocketed. The students were required to exercise for ten minutes while keeping their heart rate at 185 bpm. This occurred prior to class and at the end of the year, Naperville students took the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). His is the test cited by author Thomas Friedman in his book, The World is Flat, when he states that students in Asian countries are “eating our lunch.”
On average, US students rank 18th in science and 19th in math on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). When the the Naperville students took this test at the end of that year, they ranked number ONE in math and number SIX in science in the world, beating out Singapore in math. Because 97 percent of the students were included in the group, these results cannot be attributed to the brightest kids in the school.
What is it about exercise that dramatically increases learning abilities? Exercise heightens the senses, improves focus and mood, decreases tension, and increases motivation by doing two things: balancing neurotransmitters and promoting neurotrophic factors that are like Miracle Grow for the brain. The same neurotransmitters that make us happy are associated with attention, and the Miracle Grow-like substance mentioned primes the brain for learning. Because memories represent actual changes at the cellular level, adequate levels of this substance needs to be present for these change to occur.
This study reopens the case for physical education in schools, preferably before class in the mornings. The key difference with effective exercise is keeping the heart rate at the individual’s maximum for at least ten minutes prior to learning. If Naperville is any indication, and I believe it is, then PE needs to be redesigned and implemented for every single student. Not only would it help decrease the 38 percent obesity rate in teens and improve health, it would apparently promote academic success.