Why Movement is SO Hard for Most Everyone (except you)!


In the stone age tribe (circa 10,000 B.C.) of Bedrock, Fred and Wilma Flintstone lived with ‘modern-day’ amenities such as foot-driven cars, gimmicky kitchen appliances, and suspect telephones. Those wacky, colliding worlds made the show a beloved cartoon. Yet, there’s another juxtaposition playing out daily in your brain in the year 2020. How you respond has a lasting impact on your health and well-being.

The Research

Our brain works off the first of two different systems: System 1 is reflexive, fast, and nonconscious (Kahneman, 2011). Cavemen and cavewomen moved quickly, made mistakes, and recovered… usually. Years ago, System 1 was also called the “reptilian” brain system.

Biologically, our more primitive brain wants to conserve resources. Energy and time are precious and conserving them for the daily hunt (at least thousands of years ago) could save your life.

Translated into today, it’s an easy choice to play the ‘short game’ and conserve (sit on a couch, watch TV, and eat Cheetos). System 1 thinking might say, “Why should I move my own body (and my student’s bodies) every day? I’m tired and movement seems, well, hard.” In other words, conserve energy, hunt later, and live another day.

There is value in System 1 thinking – it is often responsible for keeping you alive today. By contrast, your System 2 brain (reflective, thoughtful, and planning) will pause to evaluate (Kahneman, 2011)System 2 thinking might say, “Yes, it is much easier to take an escalator. But I’m here to play the long game. It’s worth the time. Bring on the stairs!” It is this thinking pattern that drives teachers to move themselves and their students more, whether at school or virtually.

Let’s pair these two understandings together. System 1 says to act quickly, don’t waste energy, and play the short game. That worked a LONG time ago. In today’s world, we need both our System 1 and System 2 brains to maximize our quality of life.

In schools, one of the main barriers to implementing more movement in the classroom is many teachers believe it will take time away from other subjects without offering a compensatory benefit (Nathan et al., 2018). This is ‘short game’ System 1 talking: “There’s no time for P.E. – I’ve got standards to cover.”

It’s time to leave Bedrock and engage BOTH our System 1 and 2 thinking. Much of what people understand about the brain is out of date, including the significant impact movement has on your brain and health.

Any core understanding of the brain using ‘modularity’ is outdated. First, we used to assign an action or job to each brain region. Each was boxed-in with a single action it was responsible for (amygdala: emotions; hippocampus: short-term memory; etc.). One storyline in that narrative was the cerebellum’s solitary role to regulate movement. Until recently, the cerebellum was often overlooked by education researchers who focused more on the ‘learning’ regions of the brain.

Current discoveries show a far more interconnected story of brain function than we once understood. In addition to being highly involved in regulating movement, the cerebellum is connected to both cognitive function and emotional regulation (Schmahmann, 2019; Stoodley, & Schmahmann, 2010).

What is the relevance of these discoveries and what do they really say to us?

Finding ways you (and your students) can stay physically active will keep the brain, body, and spirit strong through what could be a difficult school year. Invest in the future by moving your body every day (yoga, walks, runs, bike rides, sports, and games).

The research in support of physical activity is robust. To keep it concrete and relevant for you, we’ll share the results of 3 different studies that illustrate the benefits of physical activity to cognitionphysical health, and stress regulation.


A high school in Chicago has found a way to use movement to quadruple students’ math scores. They also have students reading a year and a half ahead of their peers. Overall, the academic performance of students at this school place them among the top 5 in the world (Ratey, 2008).

What’s their secret? Students take a PE class immediately before their most challenging subject. It is well researched that students who are physically active within an hour before learning demonstrate better long-term memory retrieval than those who did not exercise (Pontifex, Gwizdala, Parks, Pfeiffer, & Fenn, 2016).

How does this work?

Here is the shortlist of how movement impacts the brain and cognition.

Physical activity:

  • enhances circulation so that the cellular mitochondria and even individual neurons can get more oxygen and nutrients (Nyberg, Gliemann, & Hellsten, 2015).
  • regulates norepinephrine and heart rate, which is significant in terms of increasing blood flow to the brain and improving attention (Yang et al., 2016).
  • enhances working memory, short-term memory, and long-term retrieval of memories (Chen, Zhu, Yan, & Yin, 2016; Pontifex, Gwizdala, Parks, Pfeiffer, & Fenn, 2016).
  • releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a natural substance that enhances cognition by boosting the ability of neurons to communicate with each other (Griesbach, Hovda, Molteni, Wu, & Gomez-Pinilla, 2004).

In summary, physical activity engages several systems of the brain that boost attention, memory formation, and retention.

Physical Health

One study followed students for three years to track their physical activity and school absence. Some students increased their physical activity by 20%; other students decreased their physical activity by 20%. How did this impact their school attendance?

The students who decreased their physical activity were absent 12% more than the other students. That equates to approximately 22 extra days of missed instruction as a result of poor physical activity. This evidence is another reason why less-active students struggle in school (D’Agostino, Day, Konty, Larkin, Saha, & Wyka, 2018).

How does this work?

A sedentary lifestyle is one of the top 10 risk factors for all diseases, and it is responsible for 9% of all deaths worldwide (Lee et al., 2012). Poor exercise habits are linked to increased risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and dozens of other chronic diseases (Grazioli et al., 2017).

Physical activity boosts the immune system and provides protection from illness and disease. It can also reverse the adverse effects on you, your students, or other loved ones (Bermon, Petriz, Kajeniene, Prestes, Castell, & Franco, 2015; Varga, Kyselovič, Galfiova, & Danisovic, 2017).

In short, physical activity is arguably your most powerful tool to prevent and treat non-communicable diseases.

Stress Regulation

Although one cannot take away every source of stress, physical activity can improve the stress response. A bump of cortisol (the hormone associated with stress) can help a student focus, stay awake, and jump into action on a task (Sapolsky, 2015). Too much of it, though, and they might get overwhelmed and unable to learn.

Neurotransmitters are a specific class of chemicals that can optimize brain function and student learning. Uppers (dopamine, norepinephrine, glutamine, etc.) must be balanced with an appropriate level of calming options (serotonin, oxytocin, gamma-aminobutyric acid, etc.). Too much or not enough of one kind or the other can lead to stress or depression. Fast physical activity induces positive short-term, high levels of stress to your body.

A student who has regular exercise habits will make healthier choices when faced with stressful circumstances. Also, their exercise routines will build stress resilience to help them better cope with future stressors.

How does this work?

Movement helps regulate your mood and behavior. How? The dopamine released when you exercise helps regulate your mood and hormone levels. It is not surprising that exercise is one of the most effective interventions for depression. In fact, there is evidence that exercise is a better intervention for depression than antidepressant medication or psychological treatments (Kvam, Kleppe, Nordhus, & Hovland, 2016).

Dopamine is also one of the brain’s primary motivators (Lloyd & Dayan, 2015). So, if you’re searching for more ways to motivate your students, add more physical activity to your repertoire of motivational tools.

Ideally, the winning combination for stress regulation includes active movement, along with its counterpart of more relaxed, focused movement. What does this mean for you and your personal choice of physical activity? Diversify your exercise routines to include both high impact (running, cycling, tennis) and low impact (yoga, tai chi, Pilates) activities.

Practical Applications

Many teachers are chronically tired (maybe that’s you) and the number of students sitting in front of a screen is rising. Here is where virtual movement tools can help out. Because of the current situation with Covid-19, we are sharing strategies that support physical distancing. Please modify to adhere to your local safety requirements.

Energy Movements

1. 5-4-3-2-1
Write five actions in a list on the board (jumping jacks, squats, jumps, propeller arms, toe lifts, one-leg hops, etc.). Students then do the first action 5 times, the second action 4 times, the third action 3 times, etc. until they get to one. Modify the activity to do odd numbers (9-7-5-3-1), even numbers (10-8-6-4-2), or even multiples of 3 (15-12-9-6-3).

2. Post-Covid “Drive-by Gratitude”
Give each student a post-it note as they enter the room. When they need a quick movement break, have them write a personalized message of gratitude to a person on the staff of your choosing (or they can nominate and vote). The movement comes as they all quickly run to that staff member’s classroom or office and place all the post-its somewhere (door, wall, etc) and then race back to their classroom.

For younger students, have them cut a heart out of construction paper and give a staff member a “surprise good heart attack” by taping all the hearts to their door.

3. Roll the Dice
Create a list of either 6 or 12 pre-determined activities, such as running around the building or freestyle dancing for 30 seconds. Post the list where students can see it. Keep a pair of dice up front so you are ready when you sense the class needs an energizer. Have a student roll one (for 6 energizer options) or two (for 12 energizer options) dice and shout out the number. The class jumps into action to do whatever activity corresponds with the number that is rolled.

Calming Movements

1. Wall Squats
Each student finds their own space with their back up against a wall. They slowly slide down until their knees form a 90-degree angle. The goal is for them to hold that position as long as possible. As a bonus, have a timer projected on the board so students can keep track of their time. Challenge them several times a week to improve their time by 1-3 seconds.

2. 5-5-10 Breaths
Guide students through a simple deep breathing exercise: Inhale to count of 5; hold breath to count of 5; exhale to count of 10 until all the air is gone. As a bonus, guide students into a simple yoga pose (mountain, warrior 1 or 2) while doing this breathing exercise.

For younger students, guide them to practice slow breathing. With arms at their sides, as they slowly inhale, they raise their arms to above their head (think of a slow-motion Jumping Jack arm motion). As they slowly exhale, they lower their arms to their sides again.

3. Desk Lean
Engage students in a deep stretch at their desk in a variety of ways:

  • Have students lunge (left foot forward; right foot back) while listening to your direct instruction, reading a selection of text, or completing a problem. Have them switch legs after each problem, page, or after 1-min.
  • Desk push-up: think of it as holding a plank position, but students’ hands are on their desk or chair instead of the floor. Challenge them to hold it for 30 seconds and then build up from there.

It’s tempting to give in to System 1 thinking, especially right now. Make the conscious choice to play the long game and include your System 2 thinking brain – for you and your students. You’ll both be happier, healthier, and learn better.


For more research and practical tools to implement more movement with your students, we wrote an entire chapter on the topic in the 2020 edition of Brain-Based LearningGet your copy here.


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Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

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