Everybody knows that exercise makes you feel good. When I am feeling stressed, I head to my treadmill and run at least 20 minutes and afterwards, it feels like all of my worries have faded. I see things differently after a good workout. The issues that were stressful to me are so much clearer and easy to deal with. If I started with one of my painful migraines, it also has faded. But, those are the obvious signs. There are some signs that are not so obvious, like actually enabling my brain to learn new information more easily and then being able to remember that information for a longer period of time.
Do you know why? Well, very simply, when we exercise, our bodies produce increased levels of 3 neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Incidentally, these are found in drugs like Ritalin used for treating ADHD and Zoloft used for treating depression.
In Dr. John J. Ratay’s book, Spark, the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, he explains the benefits of exercise and increased brain activity in such a way that anybody can understand and, in fact, he does an excellent job of it.
Illinois’ Naperville School District 203 has taken this new concept and changed their style of teaching and in doing so, scored No. 1 in the world in Science and No. 6 in Math in the study: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TMSS) administered every 5 years to schools worldwide who volunteer to take it (alongside Japan and China among others).
“Zero Hour” is what the physical education department at Naperville District 203 call their innovative approach to Physical Education. The idea is to teach the students how to be fit instead of playing sports. “The underlying philosophy is that if physical education class can be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness, then the lessons they learn will serve them for life…what is being taught, really, is a lifestyle”, says Ratay.
Naperville’s “NEW PE” program has been in place for 17 years now and its effects are showing up in the classroom. Not coincidentally, academically, Naperville Central H.S. consistently ranks among the state’s top ten. But surprisingly, its per-pupil operating expense is almost $9000 compared to Evanston’s New Trier High School which spends almost $16,000 per student (they also rank in the top ten in the state).
Naperville 203 actually served as a training academy for a nonprofit agency called PE4Life, which has adopted Naperville’s NewPE philosophy.
At Naperville Central H.S., students use heart monitors during physical activity. Then they are graded on how much time they spend in their target heart rate zones.
Recent research and studies such as from the California Department of Education (CDE) and theUniversity of IL Urbana-Champaign’s psychophysiologist, Charles Hillman, report that "physical activity has a positive influence on memory, concentration, and classroom behavior." and "physical activity is related to better cognitive health and effective functioning across the lifespan."
Naperville Central H.S. has their underachieving students start school at a 6:30 am PE class in which they run for 20 minutes with a heart monitor and then go straight to their first class. The results are that these underachievers are improving in their grades and standardized testing but more so, in their overall health and state of mind.
Dr. Ratay writes, “ When the students in Titusville or Naperville go for a mile run in gym, they are more prepared to learn in their other classes: their senses are heightened; their focus and mood are improved; they’re less fidgety and tense; and they feel more motivated and invigorated.”