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Exercise & Learning

Most people think about exercise as good for the body, less so for the mind. In the 21st century, we know better. Everyone—every child, every teenager, every adult—is more effective, more thoughtful, more focused, more resilient, less out-of-control, more mentally and emotionally stable, less anxious, and less susceptible to disease when they exercise regularly. This is not simply good advice or good practice; it is deeply rooted in 21st century science of brain function, and the relationship between the brain, the rest of the nervous system, and the rest of the body. Exercise must become part of the daily school routine, not once, but multiple times each day. And on weekends, too. Mostly outdoors. For everyone.

Walking is good. It’s pleasant to walk with friends. Keep moving, keep the pace up. Several times a day. Some people like to run. Stretching and movement are essential, several times a day. More vigorous exercise is necessary, too. Exercises involving obstacles and quick thinking, balance, and rapid physical response further develop the brain-body connection. Practice strength and balance, and more aggressive cardio-vascular workouts two or three times a week. To exercise alone, in a group or a class, you’ll need available time and a safe place. Popular in Asia, morning schoolyard calisthenics prepares the student body for each day’s learning.

Author John Ratey provides a scientific explanation (a very brief excerpt from his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain): “…exercise improves learning on three levels: first, it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus.”

Fitness is vital to health, well-being, and learning. Exercise decreases stress, encourages optimum brain function, reduces the tendency to gain weight, improves outlook, mitigates the severity of illness and disease, extends healthy life, and limits reliance upon pharmaceutical solutions. Making it possible for students to learn how the body works, and how to keep mind and body in optimal condition, may be school’s most important job—another key concept for 21st century learning.

Every day, every student requires sufficient sleep, healthy food, and exercise. This is not theory, not mythology. From the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Sleep-deficient children may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed, or lack motivation. You may not notice how sleep deficiency affects your daily routine.” Common nonsense: people can learn to get by on little sleep with no negative effects. “Getting enough quality sleep at the right times is vital for mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety.” A body without sufficient protein will not operate properly; the biggest impact will be sensed in muscle and brain activity. Protein deficiency results in mood swings, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and problems with illness. Similarly, abundant carbohydrates (starches and sugars) cause the body to become sluggish, and to crave more carbs. A customized, metrics-driven diet plan is helpful—but it must evolve, several times a year, as the student grows.

A simple walk is an effective way to improve interest and capacity for learning; a second walk can be even more effective. How do we make that possible for every student, multiple times a day?

For some or many students, organized sports provide an answer. Whether it’s varsity sports, organized league play, intramural sports, or informal pick-up games, sports should not be relegated to “extra-curriculum activities”—that is, activities outside of the curriculum, outside the mainstream. Sports is part of the school experience, and deserves time and respect on the twenty-hour schedule. Acknowledging that schools, parents and communities can be assertive about the importance of their competitive sports programs, rules are essential. Numbers & Money must be more than reviewing last week’s game stats and next week’s playbook. Food & Cooking ought to involve more than feeding the team, or the use of carbs for quick energy. Or not. If our practices are consistent, these decisions should made by individual students. Coaches, parents, other players, friends and community members will attempt to influence those decisions.

Antifragility is a connection between mind and body. When a muscle exercises, it expands and contracts. In time, the muscle fatigues, so rest is necessary. As it rests, the muscle rebuilds and becomes a bit stronger. “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the anti-fragile gets better.” Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder author Nassim Taleb continues: “The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means—crucially—a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them— and do them well.” Antifragility applies to more than muscles. It applies to emotional resilience, and also to the resilience of physical materials used in building construction, ship building, rocketry, and other fields.

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