Get Your Kids Moving!

kids excercise

What is the best part of the school day for elementary kids? Recess! What do many middle and high school students look forward to after school (besides playing video games and social media)? Playing sports and freedom to run and do. What we have come to understand is that beyond the natural fun young people have playing together, the benefits of exercise have a direct impact on learning.   The brain – the very target of our educational efforts – is dramatically more productive when individuals have aerobic exercise as a consistent part of their lives. Exercise enhances learning, focus, memory and promotes a healthier brain.

Exercise and Learning

Research from neuroscientists at the University of California discovered that exercise triggers the release of BDNF, a brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This natural substance enhances cognition by boosting the ability of neurons to communicate with one another – it is a neuron Miracle Grow!   When researchers sprinkled BDNF on neurons in a petri dish, the cells automatically sprouted new branches or dendrites, producing the same structural growth required for learning (Kesslak, Patrick, So, Cotman & Gomez-Pinilla, 1998). Exercise elevated this Miracle Grow to spread throughout the brain! FYI: Marathoners were found to have an amazing amount of BDNF! (This fact still does not encourage me to run marathons). (Pereira AC, Huddleston DE, Brickman AM, Sosunov AA, Hen R, McKhann GM, Sloan R, Gage FH, Brown TR, Small SA, 2007).

Perhaps that is the technical discovery that explains why German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise (Ratey, 2008).   And as you might guess, sitting actually causes a decrease in the flow of BDNF after a period of about 20 minutes. Bottom line: BDNF gives the neurons the tools to take information, process it and remember it better!

Exercise and Memory

Did you know that our brains actually can grow new neurons? This process of the regeneration of neurons, called neurogenesis, was some of the most exciting news in neuroscience in the 1990s. (Eriksson, PS, Perfilieva E, Bjork-Eriksson T, Alborn AM, Nordborg C, Peterson DA, Gage FH, 1998)

Neurogenesis is enhanced by: enriched environments; new learning; healthy foods; low stress environments; positive social situations; and exercise. Exercise, so far, is the number one way to regenerate neurons in the brain! In other words, we lose brain cells for many reasons: trauma, distress, chemicals that we inhale, drugs, too much junk food, boring environments and too much alcohol. We used to think that we were born with 100 billion neurons and that was it – it was all down hill after that. I don’t know about you, but knowing that I can grow new brain cells that enhance cognition, improve my memory and reduce my chances of experiencing depression (Kempermann, 2002), is enough to MAKE we want to exercise!

A study done at the University of British Columbia, linked consistent aerobic exercise to improved memory and thinking. (Pereira AC, Huddleston DE, Brickman AM, Sosunov AA, Hen R, McKhann GM, Sloan R, Gage FH, Brown TR, Small SA, 2007). The study found that this exercise appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain where learning and verbal memory are handled. So exercising consistently is a key factor too!

For those raising boys, it may even be more impactful to promote the proper level of aerobic exercise. A study from the University of Eastern Finland reported that there is an association between physical activity and school performance. Interestingly, this study found a distinct benefit for boys that it did not find in girls’ performance. Boys with higher levels of activity had better reading and writing skills than less active boys. (Source: University of Finland, Sept. 11, 2014)

Many adults have learned the benefit of exercise and productivity. They might discuss with co-workers how running in the morning or before lunch provides them energy and enhanced alertness for the work that follows.   As parents, we need to remember to help our kids get the benefits exercise, not only for sport participation, but for positioning the brain to maximize learning.

Exercise and Mood

Exercise balances neurotransmitters, chemicals in our brains (serotonin, dopamine, glutamate). John Ratey, author of Spark!, says that “going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters.” Exercise stimulates the release of serotonin, which is a kind of “policeman” of the brain, keeping activity under control and decreasing depression symptoms in many people. A study by Duke University researchers was widely touted in 2000 by the New York Times because it showed that exercise performed better than the antidepressant drug Zoloft at treating depression.

Exercise and Focus

Aerobic exercise is also a fantastic antidote to stress and improves focus! The brain is an amazing “chemistry lab”, so the moment a workout is started, the brain begins to release chemicals to protect neurons from free radical damage (more on this at the end). Concurrently, the brain releases endorphins which numb pain and induce feelings of well-being. During and after exercise, these endorphins bring a sense of clarity to thinking. Problems can seem more manageable and solutions might more easily come into focus. Another bit of positive news – the brain can become addicted to the sense of well-being and clarity that comes with exercise, creating an internal motivator for continuing to work out.

Exercise and Overall Health

Exercise affects the health of the overall brain, affects sleep, and affects our immune systems. Higher level activity like jogging can actually clean out the free radicals in your brain, leading to a healthier, more productive brain. All of our brains have free radicals because of the energy that cells release (by-product). The only way to clean up these broken bits of DNA that eventually cause damage to the brain, is through antioxidants, the metabolic cleanup crews (Ratey, 2008). Antioxidants come from fruits and vegetables (the more colorful, the more fighting power they have against free radicals as a little rule – more about this in the next blog), other foods such as dark chocolate and green tea, and also aerobic exercise.

A recent study suggests that consistent exercise may serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improved sleep. So another benefit of exercise is better sleep and did you know that a good nights’ sleep can improve memory the next day too? recommends the following hours of sleep per day to maximize health and brain function:

Ages 3-6 years old = 10-12 hours
Ages 7-12 years old = 10-11 hours
Ages 12-18 years old = 8-9.25 hours per day.

Another BIG bonus: Exercise can strengthen your immune system! There are a lot of theories as to why this works, but in short, it could be that the physical activity flushes out bacteria from the lungs and may flush out cancer-causing cells too! A simple walk could decrease your chances of getting a head cold. When kids are healthy, they miss less school. (Passos GS, Poyares D, Santana MG, Teixeira AA, Lira FS, Youngstedt SD, Dos Santos RV, Tufik S, de Mello MT, 2014).

So, Let’s Get Moving!

I hope this information encourages you and your family members to create a plan to get 30 minutes or more exercise a day or even 3 times a week is good! With all these benefits available from aerobic exercise, parents can take a few simple actions to ensure their children engage in it:

1 – Make sure you teach your kids about the linkage of exercise and learning and overall well-being. Don’t leave this for the school. You want them to become self-motivated to exercise for life.

2 – Evaluate the level of aerobic exercise and determine how to help your child achieve an average of 30 minutes each day.

  • Encourage your kids to play a game of basketball, tennis, tag, or soccer with you.
  • Encourage jogging time with you – great bonding activity for everyone!
  • Encourage a sport and practice
  • Encourage exercise breaks during homework time (routine of run up and down the stairs 10 times, 25 jumping jacks, jump rope in the garage, run around the house 5 times while dog chases you, etc.). Help your child create a routine of exercise during studying – they will see a BIG difference!
  • Play chase! Throw the ball! Kick the ball into the net! Rake the leaves!
  • After school, get into a routine of exercising or playing sports at a YMCA, local gym or even basement gym. Create a written routine!
  • Find a physical activity that your children enjoy – makes exercise more fun!
  • Encourage your child to exercise at recess – not just sit around.
  • Always support physical education programs in your school!
  • Play fun music to encourage dancing and movement in the house too (see list of awesome Movement CDs to encourage fun exercise!)

3 – Set the example by ensuring you get 30 minutes of exercise as well! Actions speak so much louder than words, so when our kids see us making it a priority, they will be more likely to listen. Additionally, with the benefits to our mood, alertness, and productivity, we will probably be a slightly improved mom or dad!


Sources to Support this Blog’s Research:

Blaydes Madigan, Jean. (2009). Building Better Brains through Movement: Action-based Learning.
Cohen, D. Science Translational Medicine, Jan. 13, 2010; vol 2: p 14ra3
Jensen, Eric. (2000). Learning with the Body in Mind.
Eriksson, PS, Perfilieva E, Bjork-Eriksson T, Alborn AM, Nordborg C, Peterson DA, Gage FH (1998). Neurogenesis in the adult human hippocampus. Nature Medicine, 4,1313–1317.
Erickson KI, Prakash RS, Voss MW, Chaddock L, Hu L, Morris KS, White SM, Wójcicki TR, McAuley E, Kramer AF. (2009). Aerobic fitness is associated with hippocampal volume in elderly humans. Hippocampus, 10,1030-9.
Kempermann, G. (2002, February 1). Why new neurons? Possible functions for adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Journal of Neuroscience, 22(3), 635-638.
Kesslak, J., Patrick, V., Cotman, C., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (1998, August). Learning upregulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor messenger ribonucleic acid: A mechanism to facilitate encoding and circuit maintenance. Behavioral Neuroscience, 112(4), 1012-1019.
Medina, John. (2008) Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Passos GS, Poyares D, Santana MG, Teixeira AA, Lira FS, Youngstedt SD, Dos Santos RV, Tufik S, de Mello MT. (2014). Exercise improves immune function, antidepressive response, and sleep quality in patients with chronic primary insomnia. Biomed Res Int. 498961.
Pereira AC, Huddleston DE, Brickman AM, Sosunov AA, Hen R, McKhann GM, Sloan R, Gage FH, Brown TR, Small SA. (2007) An in vivo correlate of exercise-induced neurogenesis in the adult dentate gyrus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.104,5638-43.
Ratey, John with Eric Hagerman. (2008) Spark: Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company



Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: or visit her website:

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