You are on page 1of 5

To prep for high-school life, incoming Grade 9 students paid an early visit to Midland

Secondary on Thursday. They found where their lockers will be, were given their
timetables and memorized their wireless passwords.
They also received a short session on the importance of exercise. But intellectual
not physical fitness was the theme. They learned that classes at this 100-year-old
school in Georgian Bays cottage country dont just mean sitting at desk. Here,
studying everything from history to calculus also includes soccer in the hallway,
ultimate Frisbee in the yard, even swimming across the floor some of the brief
workouts known as Spark breaks.

Video: Could exercise cure dementia?
Classes last 75 minutes, but I really find it hard to sit for 10 minutes, to be honest,
admits Walker Hunter, a Grade 10 student who was helping to demonstrate floor
swimming and other activities at the orientation. During a fitness break, he says,
you get refreshed, but youre still in work mode, and you can start up again. It
gives me time to get out and refocus.
Getting students to focus is a perennial preoccupation, but it seems especially
pressing at the moment, with grade-obsessed parents, politicians and school
trustees wringing their hands over Canadas recent slide in international math
With that worry back in the news this week when Ontarios elementary math scores
took a dip, neuroscience offers this subversive solution: Cut math class to dance
or walk, skip, play catch the theory being that whatever gets the heart pumping
will get the brain humming as well.
If you want to raise test scores, we have documented evidence big-time evidence
that that the key is to include fitness-based activity in the day, insists John Ratey,
a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and a lead researcher in the area. Theres
no question about it.
Its well understood that exercise promotes over-all health. But in the past few
years, neuroscientists have made significant strides in quantifying its brain-boosting
powers at all stages of life.
One recent study suggested that exercise is an important safeguard against
Alzheimers disease.

For young minds, the benefits to academic performance and attention are also
convincing: Not only do children with higher levels of fitness have a more developed
brain structure and perform better on cognitive tests, embedding exercise even
short spells of moderate activity into classroom time improves focus, retention
and test scores.
Last week, researchers at the University of Illinois reported that children who are
more fit have better white matter tracts (which affect learning) in their brains,
building on earlier work in which they also found higher levels of development in
areas of the brain that support critical thinking and memory.
For another study to be published soon, the universitys neurocognitive kinesiology
lab conducted a clinical trial with children 7 to 9 years old. Half participated in a
two-hour play-based fitness session after classes. Within 160 days, says Charles
Hillman, the labs leader, those youngsters were found to have a significant
increase in brain function compared with the control group, and performed better on
attention and cognitive tests.
Science suggests that, even in the short term, exercise can be a grade-changer.
Earlier research by Dr. Hillmans team has shown that 20 minutes of easy walking
(the children didnt even break a sweat) boost performance in areas of the brain
that support math and reading achievement for up to an hour.
The benefits were seen in kids of all fitness levels. But research has found even
greater gains from exercise among children who have attention-deficit disorders or
whose families are less well off and able to provide fewer extracurricular activities.
Theory also applies to college
In June, researchers at Dartmouth College reported that even less aerobic exercise
12 minutes increased attention scores for college students. But the improvement
was so significant for low-income students that it essentially eliminated the pre-test
performance gap with higher-income peers.
The findings, suggests Michelle Tine, co-author of the report, support the notion of
having multiple activity sessions interspersed with class time. It is particularly
exciting, she says, because quick bouts of exercise are pretty feasible to
implement, from both cost and time perspectives.
Adding more exercise into the school day should be obvious, says Mark Tremblay,
an obesity researcher at the Childrens Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.
Sitting idle for long periods of time is a biologically bad idea, says Prof. Tremblay,
who also teaches pediatrics at the University of Ottawa. You are designed to move,
and you should pay attention to that, not repress it.

If the science is this strong and the solution so simple why has this practice not
been adopted more universally in the countrys schools? Partly, its because a
society obsessed with test scores will resist interrupting class time for dancing or
running games with such names as huckle buckle. Indeed, when Canadas
international math scores took a dive last December, for the third testing period in a
row, the remedies that were suggested ranged from better training for teachers to
having students go back to memorizing multiplication tables. Parents didnt call for
more hopscotch in the hallway (also popular at Midland Secondary), especially not
in high school.
Canadas students now spend more time sitting at a desk than those in many other
industrialized countries. The curriculum in Ontario, for example, requires daily
exercise for younger students, although educators quietly admit that the policy is
applied inconsistently. In fact, fewer than half of all elementary schools in the
country now have a dedicated phys-ed teacher trained for the job.
Most secondary students need to take just one phys-ed course, so gym is usually a
class to get out of the way in Grade 9. (Manitoba is the only province that still
requires a credit for each year.)
This pattern is mirrored in a steep drop in over-all activity levels as Canadian
children grow up. While 84 per cent of youngsters who are 3 or 4 receive their
recommended 180 minutes of physical activity a day, only 7 per cent of those 5 to
11 get the 60 minutes considered necessary for them and the figure drops to
merely 4 per cent for children 12 to 17.
Not only have a growing number of schools decided to reverse the trend, a new
private-public partnership to be announced next month and backed by $4.8-million
in federal funding over the next five years will bring an early-morning exercise
regimen to another 450 schools across the country. In the United States, as part of
Sparking Life, a program developed by Dr. Ratey at Harvard, some schools offer
voluntary activity time before the bell rings, while others have made room during
the day for 30 minutes of mandatory exercise. The approach has been adopted by
eight schools in Ontarios Niagara Region, after a 2011 pilot project reported higher
scores in math and reading comprehension among struggling students who
participated in daily fitness sessions.
But more schools are also adopting the approach being used in Midland and
embedding exercise between Shakespeare and algebra.
Alison Cameron, a special-education teacher in Saskatoon, was one of the first in
Canada to put her students on treadmills to improve their concentration. Since then
she has helped to bring the concept to classrooms across North America, including
almost 50 aboriginal schools in Saskatchewan.

In addition to Midland, which introduced them last year, at least four high schools in
Simcoe County now use Spark breaks as teaching strategies.
Its a little counter-intuitive, says Russell Atkinson, the pioneering principal who
made Barrie Central Collegiate the first school in the area to try the approach in
You take some time away from the curriculum and do some things that dont
appear to be related. We saw amazing results. The teachers said just the
improvement in mood was worth it.
The program easily included students who werent star athletes, he says, and
concerns that classes would have trouble settling down never materialized. Theres
no evidence that 15 minutes or so spent tossing a ball or walking the hall hindered
learning. Rather, Barrie Centrals math scores rose by more than 10 per cent over
the 2012-2013 school year. As well, there were more passing grades for students in
English and math and fewer behavioural problems and suspensions.
I definitely find myself more focused, says Rachel Pigott, a Grade 11 student at
Barrie Central. Last year, her math teacher would call for an exercise break after
introducing a new subject area.
Its just a really nice time to let the lesson sink it, she explains. When you come
back in, its a fresh look at the work.
Now, when she does her homework, Rachel takes her own timeouts to shoot baskets
or take a walk. I know the benefit of taking a break.
A double payof
Dr. Hillmans lab in Illinois has produced more than 100 research papers on exercise
and learning. He says that, if he were to design a school day, it would look a lot like
the one in Barrie or Midland.
Not only are there immediate benefits, he says, the 10 minutes for every hour or so
of class time add up to a sizable chunk of the daily recommended total for exercise,
which has been shown to produce long-term brain improvement for students.
Everybody comes back and says there are positive effects behaviourally,
emotionally, academically, and asks, Why isnt everyone doing it? says Ms.
Cameron, clearly frustrated. But the people making the decisions arent putting the
practice into place. I dont understand it.
According to Prof. Tremblay in Ottawa, adding exercise to the school day has no
downside. At best, as the science suggests, grades improve. At worst, they stay flat,
but at least students are more active. He predicts that, before long, the public will

be warned against sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time even to learn your
Perhaps more important in the long run than math scores, he adds, young people
will learn something fundamental about the role of physical activity the kind that
doesnt require all-star skills and a team uniform. A little floor swimming may be just
what your brain needs.