June 29, 2000
Exercise is Good for the Soul
Maybe it's a stereotype, but Jewish people have always been considered smart. Not just by others but by themselves, too. We pride ourselves on making education a priority for our children. We encourage them to study, to go for the extra credit, and we imbue them with the value of education that they will pass on to their own children. But there's a type of education that we - and many other Americans - have been ignoring, that may have a direct impact on brain power: physical education. According to new research by neuroscientists and educators, physical exercise "may boost brain function, improve mood, and otherwise increase learning," writes Dolores King for the Boston Globe.
The body/mind connection
Physicians have known for years that depressed people often improve when they exercise. Sometimes that's all it takes. "It's helpful to think of the brain as a muscle," says Dr. John Ratey of Harvard Medical School in an interview with the Boston Globe. "One of the best ways to maximize the brain is through exercise movement. Everybody feels better after exercise. There's a reason for it."
That reason, shows research, is that physical activity increases blood flow in the brain, which helps you think better, and also increases the levels of a brain-cell growth hormone. Exercise, points out Ratey, also has a positive effect on mood-altering brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. That's possibly why depressed people feel better when they exercise.
If exercise is so great for the body, mind and soul, then why don't more schools require it? That's a question many parents and educators want an answer to. According to the Boston Globe, a 1997 survey by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education showed that only one state, Illinois, mandates daily physical education for students in grades K-12.
Here are some ways to encourage your child to be physically active despite the lack of official school encouragement:
1. Support your child's participation in gym class. When your kid comes home with his or her report card, don't poo-poo the grade in gym. Take it as seriously as other grades.
2. Many girls try to get out of gym class by getting their parents to write them excuses about menstrual cramps. Don't do it (unless it's medically advised by your doctor). Instead, tell your daughters how physical activity helps keep their bodies and minds in shape - and helps to alleviate menstrual cramps if they indeed have them.
3. Work with your school board in reinstating more comprehensive gym programs or after-school physical activities.
4. Encourage, but don't push, your kid to take up a sport that he or she really likes. Not so much for the winning or the need to excel, but for the sheer joy of movement.
5. Buy your child some fun sports gear or equipment to encourage him to do some physical activity.
And if you're really smart, you'll stop preaching to your kid about how good physical activity is for the body and mind - and get out and do some sweating yourself. n
This article reprinted with permission www.jewishfamily.com