More physical activity in schools could spark an educational revolution in Utah

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28 2012 5:50 p.m. MST

Abbey Neilson, front left, Daniel Berroteran, front right, and Hannah Costley, back center, exercise in Nicole Carter's class at Tolman Elementary School in Bountiful, Monday, Nov. 26, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If one lawmaker gets his way, Utah students may be more active during the seven or so hours they spend at school five days a week.

But the move for more movement might help Utah students achieve better health and perform better academically, according to nationally recognized scientific research.

"We may be doing absolutely the wrong thing by putting kids in school all day, putting them in the same seat and leaving them there too long," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.

Hutchings hopes to change the way school officials, parents, teachers and students look at education.

Inspired by "SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain," written by Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey, Hutchings said he believes Utah schools are doing kids harm by expecting only cognitive performance throughout the day.

"We have created a very sedentary lifestyle," he said. "Our schools are designed to be sedentary."

Without an opportunity to refuel the brain with physical activity, research has shown that humans lose the ability to focus, concentrate and think strategically, Hutchings said.

Ratey's book highlights the effects of vigorous physical activity on the brain, including how it improves thinking skills, behavior and concentration, and leads to better recall abilities.

The opposite has also been shown to be true — that a lack of exercise causes parts of the brain to turn off and not work properly, according to the study.

The bottom line is that regular exercise allows the brain to function better, Hutchings said.

Students at various schools throughout Utah have recently been engaged in research to determine whether increasing activity levels would actually result in better grades.

At Tolman Elementary School in Bountiful, kids in every grade are given extra opportunities to exercise together, in the morning and the afternoon. It's just 25 minutes of the day, but Principal David Pendergast has already seen a difference in the way students behave.

"They're really happy about what they're doing," he said. "And it's a visible change."

End-of-year test scores will be compared to those from last year in order to asses the value of added physical activity, Pendergast said. It is part of a pilot program being done at the school to help kids learn better, but also be more healthy.

"It's really something that we as a society need to look at, explore and find ways to solve," he said. "We are not helping our kids if we don't."

In a separate study performed at schools within the Granite School District, James Hannon, a professor with the University of Utah's Department of Exercise and Sport Science, said kids who participated in physical activity before math classes performed significantly better than their peers.

The local statistics are being gathered to test whether similar findings from the SPARK study can apply to Utah students and families, resulting in more efficient schooling and better outcomes, Hannon said.

So far, the most significant change in academic performance among students was recorded 30 minutes after vigorous physical activity, which Hannon said might signal "the ideal time for kids to be in a math class or other class where they're struggling."

And such a mental boon shouldn't be left to physical education classes alone. Hannon said an assortment of curriculum models could be implemented to incorporate physical activity with any subject, integrating academic learning so students are moving while they are learning.

But such methods would require a tremendous shift in the current trend.

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