I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities. –Dr. Seuss
My family and I love Dr. Seuss. My first grader thinks his books are absolutely hilarious, and I have to agree he was a genius. I have always believed that a sense of creativity inspires, motivates, or simply, helps people learn. I am a big proponent of elective courses. Brain cells are activated by creativity, but my focus in this blog is on physical activity. In previous posts I mentioned that physical activity was important to brain function, but I did not elaborate beyond mentioning how studies support improved academic and on-task behavior. The fact of the matter is that the brain becomes active like students become active. There are several studies that have analyzed brain development and exercise with mixed results.
Several things are happening when students engage in physical activity. This is obvious to anyone who observed a classroom full of students participating in some sort of energizer or brain break activity. Students become engaged, discipline issues subside, and the general atmosphere in the classroom is positive. What is not observed (visually) is what is going on in the mind of the students. As students begin to move, various areas of the brain become active: the cerebellum, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus (Ratey & Hagermann, 2008). Students that are involved in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for a duration of time can experience a stimulus in neurons increasing neuron and cellular growth (Cotman et al., 2007).
In the hippocampus, the growth factor known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps to improve the “function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens and protects them against the natural process of cell death” (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008, p. 40). BDNF helps create synaptic plasticity, which occurs when dendrites grow, synapses are created, and more cellular connections are made (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008). The growth and strengthening of neurons and the creation of synaptic plasticity contributes to the learning process as information is passed from one neuron to another and connections are made (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008, Zoeller, 2011).
Several studies have indicated that the production of BDNF increased during exercise (Cotman et al., 2007, Hillman et al, 2008). The increased levels of BDNF have led to improvement in cognitive function, learning tasks, and memory tasks (Griffen et al., 2011; Winter et al., 2006). Multiple studies have indicated improved memory performance following exercise (Berchtold et al., 2010; Hopkins & Bucci, 2010; Vaynman et al., 2004). Findings have also pointed out that BDNF levels were not just higher immediately after exercise, but were higher for up to 1-2 weeks following exercises (Berchtold et al., 2010).
The results of these findings are pretty exciting to me. Sometimes I become tired as a teacher, or become behind in a lesson, and I am tempted to skip physical activity, but I realize that is a mistake when the activity can not only stimulate the minds of my students, but can stimulate my own mind! There are several studies analyzing other areas of the mind other than the hippocampus and BDNF, which I plan to report in future posts.
While this may sound cheesy, I like to refer to BDNF as Brain Development Needs Fitness (as in physical movement). I’m sure other people can think of other sayings, and I would love to hear from you!