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To improve the brain, school works the body

Susan Notes: Students with lower reading scores take a gym class right before a literacy class, and early results are promising.

Can you imagine kids who probably don't like school anyway having to show up for a 7 a. m. class? Although I applaud any effort to get kids moving, someone should research how letting kids sleep an extra hour and a half affects their scholastic performance.

By Meg McSherry Breslin

NAPERVILLE, Ill. - Freshmen who struggle in reading class have a new assignment this fall at Naperville Central High School: more time in the gym.

Long regarded as a leader in physical education reform, the Naperville school's latest effort involves trying new research linking increased physical activity with academic success. A small group of students with lower reading scores takes a specially designed gym class immediately before their literacy course.

The program is being closely watched nationally by leading researchers studying the effect of exercise on brain function. Among them is Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey, who includes a study of Naperville's program in his upcoming book on exercise and the brain.

"I've said for years that exercise is like Miracle-Gro for the brain," he said. "But now we're learning so much more about it, and just how much exercise causes a huge increase in the growth factors in the brain."

Ratey said research has revealed that exercise allows brain cells to bind together faster, making students more ready to learn.

He and some educators say such findings are critical now because physical education programs are under attack in the United States. Many schools are cutting back or eliminating gym to squeeze in more time for core academics and the strict demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Even as the nation grapples with growing childhood obesity rates, the percentage of students in daily physical education classes has declined from 42 percent in 1991 to 33 percent in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Illinois is the only state that requires daily physical education for every grade, though about one in four districts gets waivers for less-frequent classes or no classes because of money or time constraints.

"There's just a tremendous amount of pressure on schools to achieve ... and the strategies are to eliminate recess and physical education," said Darla Castelli, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a leading researcher on the impact of exercise on student achievement.

"Even in schools that do have phys ed, students are pulled from P.E. for remediation. Children are sitting for six or eight hours with minimal activity, and that's just not what kids need."

Paul Zientarski, Naperville Central's longtime physical education leader, had Ratey's research in mind when he decided to try a morning physical education class last year for freshmen with below-average reading scores. Students who opted into the 7 a.m. class took a remedial literacy class immediately afterward, whereas others with similar skills had their reading class several hours after gym.

Eleven students took the early morning class last year and the results were promising, Zientarski said. Standardized reading scores edged up the equivalent of 1.4 grade levels. As a result, school officials decided to study the idea further this school year with a larger group.

Thirty freshmen with below-grade-level reading scores enrolled in Central's remedial literacy class. All of them are taking early morning physical education with above-average aerobic activity, but only half will have reading class immediately afterward. The rest will take reading in the afternoon, when the effects of the early exercise may have worn off.

Naperville is one of a number of schools nationally now uncovering strong evidence of a link between exercise and better academic performance, Castelli said.

She conducted a 2004 study of 9- to 11-year-olds in downstate Illinois. Students who scored higher on fitness tests were more likely to do better on standardized tests in reading and math. A study in California of more than 1 million students had similar results.

"Most people kind of understand that exercise is good for the brain in various ways, but to understand that more specifically, mechanistically, is very important because there's so much pressure on schools to improve test scores," said Dr. Antronette Yancey, director of the Center to Eliminate Health Disparities at UCLA. "To compromise physical education in service of test scores and learning is completely backward thinking."

At the same time, many advocates say schools need to do a lot more than just increase time or reschedule the gym class. Instead, they need to rethink how to teach gym.

The old method with gym teacher as drill sergeant forcing students to run a mile or endure humiliation in a dodgeball game has to make way for a new model, they said. Instead, the focus should be on fun games that create a lifelong love of fitness.

Zientarski is a former football coach and has been a physical educator for 37 years. Although he once prodded students with countless push-ups and laps around the gym, he said, he realized that approach was turning them off and that he needed to change. He has trained 58 school districts from around the United States and five foreign countries in his new approach.

Naperville Central students can square dance and scale a climbing wall to fulfill their daily gym requirement. They wear heart monitors and chase rubber chickens on a field, giggling and sweating as they do. They learn about nutrition and measure their body mass index to ensure their height is in proportion to their weight. They can even take a gym leadership class and work on skills as coach and motivator.

The department has a slew of innovative exercise equipment, including exercise bikes attached to game machines that simulate raceways and ski slopes. Students get a workout without even realizing how hard they are working, Zientarski said.

In a recent leadership class, he assigned a group of students to hold hands in a contorted circle, then find a way to untangle themselves, working as a team to solve the problem.

After much struggle and a lot of laughs, most groups figured it out.

"You do a lot of different things that are fun in here," said sophomore Jordon Poll. "It's less like straight exercise and more about learning to cooperate more, not just running a boring mile."

Now, Zientarski said, brain research may be the latest evidence that gym period needs to promote his mini-revolution.

"We need to let people know that a strong physical education program is a core part of the education process and helps learning," he said. "We've just got to make people aware of how it all works hand in hand."

— Meg McSherry Breslin
Chicago Tribune


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