When we talk about the benefits of exercise, we usually focus on physical health. And when I asked a group of middle schoolers why movement is important, they had a similar response: it’s good for your body.
But neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki argues that “exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today.”
Movement is often seen as a “break” from studying — and something we too often don’t have time to do. What if we instead reframed it as an essential study tool?
1. Exercise Improves Focus
According to Suzuki’s research, a single workout can improve a student’s ability to focus on a task for up to two hours. As she told me in an interview, when kids “run around, their brains are getting a bubble bath of good neurochemicals, neurotransmitters, and endorphins. These help memory and mood. A simple burst of exercise helps students focus better — to filter out what they do and do not need to pay attention to in class.”
2. Exercise Enhances Cognition
Exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons. It produces a chemical called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which acts as a fertilizer, strengthening neurons and making them less susceptible to breaking down. Exercise supports our ability to sort through information, make decisions, focus and retrieve key information.
If you are bothered by a work dilemma or if your child is struggling with a homework assignment, stop and take a family walk. As Suzuki told me, “Even though it takes time from your workday, it will give you back time. You will be more productive if you take that time off. Even if it’s just a walk up and down the stairs or a walk around the block. That is a surefire way to make your work more productive.”
3. Exercise Extends Creativity
Have you ever had a great idea come to you while you were out on a walk or bike ride? Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” He was onto something. In experiments out of Stanford, students who completed creative tasks while walking — such as coming up with unexpected uses for a paperclip — came up with more ideas than those who brainstormed sitting down.
Annie Murphy Paul, author of the brilliant new book “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain,” argues that movement can expand our mental capacity. Humans did not evolve to do their best work while sitting down, she told me. Think about a child struggling to keep their body still during a lesson. “It takes a fair amount of mental bandwidth to keep our bodies still because we’re meant to be in a kind of state of constant motion. And to control your impulse to move — especially for children — uses up some of the mental resources that they could otherwise apply to their learning.”
4. Exercise Supports Mental Health
Exercise releases endorphins such as dopamine and serotonin that boost mood and reduce anxiety. As one study summarized, “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.” In addition, exercise also supports healthy sleep habits — and sleep correlates strongly with emotional regulation. Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep notes that “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.”
As with most things, it’s easier to form good habits when others around you are working on these habits, too. As parents, talk to kids about your own efforts to keep your minds and bodies healthy. What small changes can you make as a family to incorporate more movement? Head out on a weekend family hike? Have an after-dinner dance party? Shoot some hoops together? As your kids’ bodies move, their brains will thank you.