Strenuous exercise and cognitive development


I've been reading a fascinating book, Spark, by John J. Ratey. It's a quick easy read, a popular book, describing the role of exercise in neurogenesis, cognition and learning. It describes a pilot program in a school district in Naperville Illinois. They discovered that strenuous physical exercise led to participating schools raising their scores in all the national tests measuring children and adolescent's academic achievement. One year they had 97% of their 8th graders take the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an international test of science knowledge/skills. Their young adolescents scored first, just ahead of Singapore. They have found that kids who participate in the program (they changed the name from PE to Fitness) end up with dramatic changes in their learning, concentration, memorization skills, cognitive flexibility, etc.

The kids are all given heart rate monitors and instead of competing with each other as they do in more traditional sports, they each are expected to keep their heart rates at 80% of capacity for an hour –therefore they are going for their own personal best. The effect on learning is remarkable. They found that the kids who arrive at school at 6:30AM to do their exercise are more able to learn in the classes that follow. Other research (on mice for example) is described, demonstrating the mechanics of this, with physical exercise leading to significant increases in BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and other growth hormones which directly lead to neurogenesis –making new neurons affecting the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus (maybe other brain areas also, I don't know yet, still reading the book).

This is not the emphasis in article below, but it is related. It made me want to resume going to the gym, and not just doing kundalini yoga although that probably works too –but I get the impression that the more strenuous exercise has a bigger impact. The children and adolescents are given a big choice of activities to choose from –running, cycling, climbing an elaborate wall, doing that computer generated dance activity (I don't remember the name), etc. Ratey points out that in more traditional school sports, kids spend a great deal of time just waiting around, and some kids who are not "athletic" get left out altogether. Not so with the fitness emphasis, it's a whole new endeavor.

I knew that exercise promoted better mood and countered stress. What I didn't know was that exercise has profound effect on cognitive function. I recommend the book for anyone who wants to get inspired to engage in more regular strenuous exercise, while strengthening cognitive apparatus.


Note the review said strenuous exercise. It really does not get anymore strenuous than high intensity strength training. The advantage of high intensity strength training is that it does not require hours each week engaged in monotonous exercise. Significant strength increases occur exercising as little as once or twice a week IF it's the right exercise program with the right trainer. At Kelly's Austin Personal Training and at New Orleans Ultimate Fitness Trainers our personal trainers can guide you through a personal training program that will safely produce ongoing results, so you can avoid wasting time with trial and error and avoid possible injury.