Over the past decade neuroscientists have made significant gains in their understanding of brain development and function. In my opinion, the most exciting research has been done in the area of neuroplasticity. Based on this research we now understand that the brain has the ability to change itself through the growth of new neuronal structures.
In his bestselling book, Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina lists 12 rules that explain how brains really work.
I am particularly interested in rule #1, stating that: Exercise boosts brain power. Dr. Medina's book explains that exercise will stimulate the birth of additional neurons in the hippocampus of the brain and that this neuronal growth creates a positive environment for your brain development.
Dr. John Ratey, the author of, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has further explored these concepts in an experimental environment, testing children's cognitive abilities with and without exercise. Based on these findings, Dr. Ratey believes that exercise prior to learning or testing is an effective way to optimize the functioning of the neurons in your brain.
Exercise has also demonstrated a positive influence in the prevention of cognitive decline in older populations. University of Illinois neuroscience professor, Arthur F. Kramer in his meta-analysis looking at exercise and the aging brain, concluded that, "the benefits of physical exercise or physical activities promotes brain and cognitive vitality well into older adulthood."
Based on this research, I think we can safely say that, in addition to the many health benefits we already know about exercise, brain development can be enhanced by exercise. For these, and many other obvious reasons, I find it very discouraging to witness the continued decrease in the physical activity levels of children, both in and outside of school.
Currently, the public school systems in Canada, offer physical education classes one to two hours per week for most grades. In many high schools there is no requirement for physical activity. Our growing problem with childhood obesity supports the idea that children are becoming less active.
Inactivity in children is not only negative from a physical health perspective, but I believe it could also have a detrimental impact on students learning and overall brain development. I think our growing population of inactive and obese children will not reach their physical or intellectual potential, if they remain inactive throughout their formative years.
This is a major problem that parents, teachers and all levels of government cannot ignore. I have been involved with many discussions around these issues, but I have yet to see effective solutions. Obesity is still increasing in our country.
The idea of exercise as a tool for brain development should be very attractive to anyone involved in education. A practical solution would be to start each school day with 30 minutes supervised physical activity. Teachers and students could participate together. This would allow everyone to start their day with enhanced brain function. A brisk walk through the neighbourhood, or laps around the school would be enough exercise to provide significant benefits. It is quite possible you would be able to recruit a few parent volunteers to help supervise the students. I am sure most adults would benefit from an extra 30 minutes of activity a day.
A simple way to benefit from these findings, as Dr. Ratey has suggested, would be to use exercise as a "primer" to enhance your brain's ability to function. This is such a simple concept that is rarely utilized in our busy world.
I have a couple of ideas to help get you started with your brain development: The next time you have a very important meeting that requires quick thinking and active listening, head out for a brisk walk 10 minutes before the meeting, climb some stairs or (if you have a private office) try some standing squats alternating with wall push ups.
If you are a student, try exercising prior to your exams and important lectures. If you are a writer or journalist, try exercising right before you sit down to formulate your latest ideas. Finally, if you are a parent and you have something important to discuss with your children, ask them to take a walk with you in a quiet place where you can share ideas, enjoy nature and build some mental strength. The research shows they might actually be listening and absorbing the information more effectively.
The message is simple. Do some exercise and build your brain!