Not That You Asked

Wind sprinting to academic excellence

Last I could gather, far from all school administrators in our state had been persuaded that physical education was all that important to the curriculum. Now two recent studies that suggest fit kids are smarter may convince them otherwise.
The research could dampen enthusiasm in these austere budgetary times for cutting back on phys ed programs on grounds that exercise does not enhance students’ academic performance.
Wrong, say researchers from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. They are reporting that they’ve got the pictures to prove it: Fit kids are smarter and, at least among the 9- and 10-year olds, they grow bigger brains.
In these latest studies, the Illinois researchers put the children on a treadmill, separated out the ones in the best aerobic shape from the ones in the worst, administered tests to each to determine which group best sorts out wheat from chaff, essential material from irrelevance, and then examined the kids’ brains with magnetic resonance imaging.
The researchers zeroed in on two parts of the brain, the basal ganglia and the hippocampus. The ganglia lie deep down, in the “basement,” and coordinate movements; the hippocampus, which resembles a seahorse, sits in the front part of the brain and helps regulate emotion and memory. Together, they enable complex intellectual activity.
The images show heftier hippocampi and greater volumes of ganglia in the fit kids. The bigger brains, suggest the studies, mean smarter students. They are more focused and attentive and able to mesh thoughts and actions more seamlessly. They develop complex memory and think more intricately, too.
Looking at a raft of other studies, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation determined that students who spent more time in physical education classes or school sports maintained or improved their grades and test scores, even though they spent less time getting classroom instruction.
So if we want bright kids, we must make sure they exercise, aerobically.
Still, three years back, when the California Endowment looked at physical education programs in 77 of our public schools, it found students not only spent less time in phys ed than the National Association for Sports and Physical Education recommended, but also that schools had decidedly low compliance when it came to meeting even the less stringent requirements.
Though California requires an average of 20 minutes a day of physical education in grades one through six and 40 minutes in grades seven through 12, the endowment, in a report called Physical Education Matters, found on average that vigorous exercise was taking place for a mere four minutes every half hour. (The association’s standard would give elementary students 50 more minutes a week and grade seven to 12 students 25 minutes more.)
It’s also no wonder that administrators would have shrugged physical education off as a lesser priority, though some 60 to 70 percent of them in the endowment study recognized that physical rigor led to better grades and fewer discipline problems. For, as the study notes, there are “no real consequences” for failure to comply. Besides, the standardized tests on which schools are judged do not reflect how students did in phys ed. And the notion that school time had better be devoted to academics is buttressed even by the federal No Child Behind Act’s omission of physical education as a core subject.
Shall we say goodbye to the mind/body dichotomy, at least as regards aerobic fitness? If our kids are struggling with academics, could we not try some serious aerobic exercise?
A sage I know who retired a few years ago as an English professor and a dean at one of our estimable North County campuses urged schools and colleges to resist the growing pressure for back- to-basics education and strenuously promote programs in art and music. How bereft would your experience of life be, say, if you never heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?
More to the point, he said, you never know what’s going to click with what in this elusive business of education. Could a student hear some Mozart and for some inexplicable reason get clear at last on logarithms?
Who’s with me for some wind sprints with headphones on and a magic flute?

Bruce Kauffman can be reached at