Raising aerobic fitness, developing abilities – how schools and happiness make a difference.

I am one of those people who enjoy setting themselves new challenges and acquire a different understanding of the world in which we live. In recent years, I have taken on an allotment, met fellow market gardeners, enjoyed the chatter around a thermos of coffee and definitely learned to lean on my shovel. Digging is one of the most physical activities I have ever done, and I was delighted to read this morning that such aerobic activity has every chance of making me more intelligent. Actually, the research relates not to people of my age, but to children, and that’s even more exciting. I quote from the press release (21 November 2017) from the Universidad de Granada:

Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR) have proven, for the first time in history, that physical fitness in children may affect their brain structure, which in turn may have an influence on their academic performance.

More specifically, the researchers have confirmed that physical fitness in children (especially aerobic capacity and motor ability) is associated with a greater volume of grey matter in several cortical and subcortical brain regions.

In particular, aerobic capacity has been associated with greater grey matter volume in frontal regions (premotor cortex and supplementary motor cortex), subcortical regions (hippocampus and caudate nucleus), temporal regions (inferior temporal gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus) and the calcarine cortex. All of those regions are important for the executive function as well as for learning, motor and visual processes.”

Brain scanUoGr

According to the main author of the paper, Irene Esteban-Cornejo, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Granada, grey matter volume in the cortical and subcortical regions influenced by physical fitness improves in turn the children’s academic performance. She writes “Physical fitness is a factor that can be modified through physical exercise, and combining exercises that improve the aerobic capacity and the motor ability would be an effective approach to stimulate brain development and academic performance in overweight/obese children”.

“This scientific paper means an important contribution to human knowledge which should be taken into account by educational and public health institutions”.

“We appeal both to politicians, who make educational laws that are increasingly more focused on instrumental subjects, and to teachers, who are the final link in the chain and teach Physical Education day after day. School is the only entity that gathers every children in a mandatory way for a period of at least 10 years, and as such, it’s the ideal context for applying such recommendations”, conclude the researchers.

Across on my Facebook page, there has been lively debate as to whether UK Independent Schools persist in maintaining privilege per se, and a parallel discussion on the important purpose our existence as centres of excellence  to provide opportunities for children that otherwise would not be open to them. It’s in the opportunities for and provision of physical education that our specific independent school has always had as a key focus, because the positive link between physical performance and intellectual development has always been evident for most children. There is a particular focus in the research that’s easy to miss, and that’s the even stronger correlation between raising aerobic activity and reducing obesity.

How does this tie into setting a healthier mind-set then? The key features of progressing positive mental well-being is to know what things you can’t change, what things you can, and setting out to do the latter.  Here’s Susanna Halonen, the Happyologist on the matter – Susanna’s full article can be read following the link here:

“Let’s start by looking at what research has said about worrying in general:

  • About 85% of the things we worry about never happen.
  • If what we worry about does happen, 80% of us said we handled the outcome better than we thought we would.
  • People who let go of worries instead of stressing over them are much healthier than those who don’t.

So how do you let go of this worrying that sometimes drives you crazy – especially when you’re worrying about things you have no control over? Try the six strategies below to stop worrying once and for all – there’ll be a time and a place for each of them.

1. Accept uncertainty & learn to thrive in it.

2. Call a friend to talk about you worry.

3. Practice mindfulness.

4. Distract yourself with another activity.

5. Exercise!

6. Have a designated worry time and worry notebook.”

What’s interesting about the above is that the act of being physically active, whether that is running, rowing, riding a bike or digging an allotment takes time, and at least 20 minutes or so. In that time, you certainly commence 4 of the 6 activities above, and worries diminish – and often you carry out that exercise with a friend and do make mental notes in your to do list. I’ve written before that any activity worth doing needs to be undertaken for at least 20 minutes of focussed time, most specifically around reading because it’s only once you are deep into a book that the language being taken deep down into your consciousness starts reshaping and make new connections with other learned concepts and understandings.

To conclude, here’s a circular graphic of how the best early years education looks, and see how the science above clearly maps well onto the activities shown in a young child’s life.




About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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