Like other peripheral courses of study, physical education has recently fallen prey in many school systems to the assessment juggernaut. Under pressure to improve test scores, some schools—particularly those strapped for cash—have had to throw their energy and resources into the sciences, math, and reading, leaving high and dry more "extra-curricular" subjects like the arts, woodshop, and physical education, or P.E. Some schools are even eliminating recess.
Proponents of P.E., though, have taken their case to Congress. The PEP Bill, sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), if approved, would initially mandate $5 million for physical education in U.S. schools and may make as much as $400 million available over the next five years. And aside from the importance of physical health, proponents may have one other factor in their favor: a growing body of research suggesting that physical activity is integral to keeping cognitive processes working on all valves.
“Running increases the genesis and survival of new cells in the hippocampus, a region important for learning and memory.”
The same team of Duke University Medical Center researchers who concluded in 1999 that aerobic exercise proves as effective as medication in treating depression in older adults has recently published another article on physical activity. In the January 2000 issue of the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, this team reported on their study in which the effects of a structured exercise program on cognitive functioning were measured. Using the same pool of adults from the 1999 study—a group with a mean age of 57 years—the researchers found that aerobic exercise, in addition to warding off depression, also improved cognitive functioning.
“Add to this a number of recent studies completed at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, investigating the role of exercise—in particular, running—on cell growth in lab animals. “Running increases the genesis and survival of new cells in the hippocampus, a region important for learning and memory,” says Dr. Henriette Van Praag, part of the Salk Institute team working on this problem. And these mice indeed performed better on spatial learning tasks when compared to sedentary control mice.”
And at Arizona State University, Dr. Debbie Crews, an assistant research professor of exercise science who works largely with special needs and minority teenage populations, has been attempting to improve both behavioral problems and cognitive functioning of these kids through a number of physical activities, including golf, horse riding, and archery. Crews is examining the effects of these activities on, among other things, self-esteem, depression, reaction time, and other facets of personality and cognitive functioning.
What she’s found is that there is some improvement, though the results have been very dependent on the coupling of the activity with the population. "In different activities and populations," she says, "the results vary. It’s like you would go to a gym and get a physical conditioning program, but you would get a different one depending on whether you wanted to lose weight or run a marathon."
In a central Phoenix fourth grade class composed mostly of Hispanic children, Crews and her colleagues ran a study in which the class was divided into two groups: one participated in an aerobic exercise program and that the other participated in a physical activity program. Each group met three days a week for six weeks. In the aerobic program, instructors tried to keep the children’s’ heart rate above 140 beats/minute. In the physical activity group, they kept the heart rate below 140 beats/minute.
"The interesting thing," says Crews, "was that in the aerobic activity group we found an improvement in grades compared to the physical activity." They also found lower depression and increased self-esteem.
“If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong.”
Dr. Jennifer Etnier, Crews’ colleague at ASU and also an assistant professor of exercise science and physical education, says that physical activity is probably very important for adolescents, though most of the research thus far has been on other groups—particularly the aging. A 1997 meta-analysis carried out by Etnier and a number of colleagues, however, found five studies—out of a total 134 looking at the importance of exercise—that focused on normal adolescents and cognitive abilities.
The results of these studies suggest that cognitive abilities are indeed benefited by exercise for this group. When the life cycle is broken down into six groups—elementary (age 6 to13); high school (age 14 to17); college (age 18to 30); adult (age 30 to 45); older adult (age 45to 60); oldest adult (age 60 to90)—the "high school" grouping is the second most likely group to benefit after the "older adults."
There are all sorts of reasons why this might be the case, Etnier says.
"Exercise could be making a difference in a number of ways," she says. "In puberty, exercise may be stabilizing children from having big hormonal level swings, which would allow them to concentrate better. Also, activity helps with tension; if a kid is having behavioral problems, exercise could bring about a fatigue preventing them from having as many outbursts. As soon as they do that, they start learning more, because they can pay attention."
Etnier adds that another, subtler mental facet is affected a great deal by exercise: self confidence. "If you exercise and attain these accomplishments in the physical activity realm, you feel better, more confident, and that transfers to the classroom: you may be more participatory in class; if you feel better about yourself, you may perform better."
The science behind all of this is still to be clarified. One leading theory is that exercise provides the brain with more glucose. The brain needs glucose both to power neurons and to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter important to memory.
As it happens, short bouts of exercise do not appear to enhance cognitive abilities appreciably; it is through longer-term commitments that the effects seem apparent, which would seem to stress the importance of an exercise regimen.
"It’s such a travesty that P.E. classes are being cut from the school system," says Etnier. "Because there can be, if physical activity is used properly, an aerobic exercise component, a resistance exercise component, and a skill learning exercise in an enriched environment."
Thomas Jefferson famously said that "not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather little regarded. I speak this from experience, having made this arrangement of my life. If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong."
Jefferson, though prone to self-aggrandizing aphorisms and proclamations about the manner life should be led, may have actually hit the mark with this one.