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Posted on May 1, 2019

Learning Has A Heart Rate

Learning Has A Heart Rate

We have learned a lot about how vigorous exercise affects our ability to learn.  We know that exercise decreases anxiety, improves mood, executive function and attention and guards against stress. It stimulates the release of chemicals which promote growth of the body and the brain’s neural networks, positively affecting learning potential.  Exercise is so powerful that it even unleashes neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse the damaging effects of eroded brain cell connections and shrunken areas of the brain brought on by toxic levels of stress or chronic depression.  We know that physical activity has a profoundly positive impact on cognitive ability and mental health, yet we do not always apply that knowledge to ourselves or our students.  Is it possible that in order to increase learning capacity we ought to – literally – get our staff and students engaged in vigorous physical activity to improve overall fitness?

John Ratey is a Harvard psychiatrist who has done extensive research into the effects of exercise on the brain.  In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, he says, “Physical activity sparks biological changes that provide an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn.” He also describes a school in Naperville, Illinois, that used this knowledge to transform a student body of 19,000 into one of the fittest in the U.S.A.  Not only were they among the fittest, but they were also among the brightest.  The school began its fitness focus when a physical education teacher named Neil Duncan began a Zero Hour fitness class before the regular school schedule.

He measured student fitness levels using heart rate monitors rather than using speed or performance indicators.  Initially, he worked with students who were required to take a literacy class to bring their reading comprehension up to par.  Duncan had them running, riding bikes and other forms of vigorous exercise that maintained student heart rates to between 80-90 percent of their maximum heart rate, calculated by subtracting a person’s age from 220.

What Duncan aimed to do was to get them prepared to learn through vigorous exercise. At the end of the first semester, the students showed a 17% improvement in reading and comprehension compared with a 10.7% improvement among students who took the standard physical education class.  Administrators were so impressed that they incorporated the Zero Hour fitness into the regular high school schedule as Learning Readiness PE.  This unique approach to physical education and fitness became a unique model for improving academics and mental health.  To increase motivation for kids to keep moving, they incorporated a range of activities that appealed to students’ interests.  Some of the options included small-sided sports (e.g. 3-on-3 basketball and 4-on-4 soccer), kayaking, treadmill running, using a climbing wall, Dance Dance Revolution, and a high ropes course.  The kids began to get hooked on moving as a lifestyle-even outside of school.

After the fitness program was in place for many years, the district was ranked among the top academically.  In international science and math exams, 97% of grade 8 students from Naperville participated.  In science they finished number one in the world, and in math placed sixth in the world, while the USA as a whole ranked 18th in science and math.  Even though this difference cannot be attributed totally to an unusual physical education program, the focus on health through physical activity has certainly made a significant difference to the Naperville students’ attention in learning, and their health and well-being.

Other studies have also shown the positive impact of high-intensity exercise on cognitive ability and wellness.  In an experiment performed on 67 adolescents by Daniel Ardoy and his colleagues, some students were assigned to four sessions of high-intensity PE each week.  After four months, these students performed better than others on tests of cognitive ability, and they earned higher grades at school (Ardoy et al. 2014).

An experiment conducted in the Netherlands randomly assigned 56 students to one of three-morning school sessions:1. Students who sat all morning2. Students who had a 20-minute break of physical activity after 90 minutes; and3. Students who had two 20-minute physical activity bouts, one at the start and after 90 minutes.

The students who had two bouts of morning exercise performed better on a test of attention, and this was true even after the researchers adjusted for baseline differences in attention and children’s involvement in sports (Altenburg, 2016). When researchers in Illinois tested the effects of short-term exercise on students diagnosed with ADHD, they found that aerobic activity gave them a special boost, altering their brain activity in ways that enhanced neurocognitive function and inhibitory control (Pontifex et al. 2013).

We know that vigorous exercise primes the brain for mental performance, it improves test scores, makes our brain more capable of greater creativity, more focused concentration and better problem solving, increased memory and improved mental health and well-being.  What could your school do to increase opportunities for movement during the day?  Would you consider walking students up and down flights of stairs before writing a test or giving a presentation to help them perform better and feel more relaxed?  Would you incorporate 20-30 minutes of vigorous exercise in the morning each day?  For students with limitations to increasing heart rate, are there creative ways they could be given leadership opportunities that involve an assisting role?

How will you use this knowledge to get a jump on learning at your school?


Jenny Williams (
SCSBC Director of Educational Support Services + Safe Schools


Altenburg T.M., Chinapaw M.J., and Singh A.S. (2016). Effects Of One Versus Two Bouts Of Moderate Intensity Physical Activity On Selective Attention During A School Morning In Dutch Primary School Children.
Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 19(10): 820-4pii: S1440-2440(15)00236-4.
Ardoy D.N., Fernández-Rodríguez J.M., Jiménez-Pavón D., Castillo R., Ruiz J.R, and Ortega F.B. (2014). A Physical Education Trial Improves Adolescents’ Cognitive Performance And Academic Achievement: The EDUFIT Study. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 24(1):e52-61
Pontifex M.B., Saliba B.J., Raine L.B. (2013). The Journal of Pediatrics, 162 (3):543-551.
Ratey, J.J. and Hagerman E. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little Brown Spark.
Wells, G. (2017). The Ripple Effect: Sleep Better, Eat Better, Move Better, Think Better. Toronto, Ontario: HarperCollins.

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