A recent study posted in the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined the effects of short bursts of exercise on higher-level thinking that takes place in the pre-frontal cortex. The article told how the brain’s executive function is affected by the exercise and some implications for student learning.
The human brain is made of many structures, each with its own set of duties. The pre-frontal cortex is located at the front of the brain. It is behind the forehead. This part of the brain controls behavior. The emotional response that a person gives in a given situation depends a great deal on how their pre-frontal cortex works. This is the brain structure that controls impulsivity and inhibition. Memories are formed, in part because of the pre-frontal cortex. Executive function is one of the main duties of the pre-frontal cortex.
Just what is executive function? Just as an executive in a company runs the business, the executive function controls many higher-level actions. It helps people to reason through problems, so it is essential for effective problem solving. Setting and reaching goals is also an executive function. Without executive function people would lack the ability to organize time, space, and tasks while monitoring and evaluating their performance in completing these chores.
The British Journal of Sports Medicine published this recent analysis of studies detailing what happens during short bursts of exercise. The analysis was designed to look at studies showing how these short exercise bursts affected higher brain functions. The analysis divided the studies into three age groups. Self-control was improved for all three age groups after they did short, intense exercise. The study authors hypothesized that the increased blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex could support the inhibitory activity of the executive function of the pre-frontal cortex.
All of the pieces of the pre-frontal cortex puzzle are important for a person to function well in the classroom. Inhibition is necessary to academics. Students need to be able to delay gratification. They must stay focused and concentrate on the material that they are studying. Students need to constantly monitor their understanding of the curriculum and their classroom performance.
A problem with the brain’s executive function is one of the difficulties that people with Attention Deficit Disorder exhibit. Short and intense bursts of exercise could help all students, but especially those with ADD, do better in the classroom.
This idea clashes with what is happening in classrooms in many countries of the world. With the test-driven “accountability” movement, recess time has been cut to add more time for learning and practicing basic skills. Budgets for elective classes, like physical education, have also fallen. While spending time in extra classroom activities may seem like a good idea, it could be that some of the time would be better spent exercising and oxygenating the brain. More studies need to be completed.
BMJ-British Medical Journal (2013, March 6). Short bouts of exercise boost self control. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 25, 2013.
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