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Active Kids: Exercise Builds Strong Brains

My son's school just cut recess again and I can't help but think that this isn't a good idea. He is a squirrely kid already - any thoughts on talking points for the school board?

Judy, Montana

Judy, School districts strapped for cash and facing pressure to increase test scores often try to preserve classroom instruction by making cuts to physical education and recess. Districts are making very difficult decisions and I don't envy them!

Unfortunately, based on the latest brain science, cutting exercise can be counterproductive.

Brains and Bodies Are Connected

Think about evolution - our bodies were born to run, walk, climb, jump, and swim. They were also born to strategize, plan, and think ahead. Human survival depended on both our muscles and our brains. It shouldn't surprise us that they are connected!

The research boils down to this: Exercise builds strong brains.

Exercise to Think Better

So what happens inside your son's brain when he heads out to the playing field to kick a soccer ball around during recess? Two areas of the brain benefit: his prefrontal cortex (the seat of executive functioning) and hippocampus (the seat of memory and learning).

Vigorous exercise sparks the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Some scientists have called BDNF "Miracle-Gro for the brain" because it causes neurons to flourish.

BDNF is especially powerful in the hippocampus, where memories are registered. BDNF not only preserves existing neurons, it also strengthens and increases new connections.

As your son runs across the field his prefrontal cortex is also firing, improving his executive functioning and working memory. This is why active kids are better able to organize their homework and complete school projects. Your son will find that he is more alert and focused after he exercises.

Exercise to Feel Better

As if that isn't enough, it gets better! Exercise not only helps kids think better, it also helps them feel better. As your son't heart is pumping, he's also increasing amounts of three neurotransmitters in the brain - dopamine, serotonin, and noeprinephrin. There are a lot of things that these chemicals do, but here are the basics:

  • Dopamine helps your son feel good.
  • Serotonin stabilizes his mood.
  • Norepinephrine boosts his energy.

All of this is going to help your son in the classroom. Combined with hard work and studying, exercise is a key ingredient for academic success.

Check out these tips to raise active kids!


Dr. Dave and Erin