April 12th, 2010
03:48 PM ET
By Elizabeth Mo
Parents expect their child to work when they are sent to college, not work out. However, recent findings suggest exercise belongs in the classroom.
When Wendy Suzuki, associate professor of neuroscience, went to the gym, she noticed it was easier for her to remember facts and write grant proposals. She took this simple observation and transformed it into a course at New York University in which students perform aerobic exercises for one hour followed by one hour of lecture.
To see if exercise did improve memory and learning, Suzuki also designed another course where the lecture was the same, but there was no exercise component. At the beginning of the semester, students from both classes performed a simple test to measure the activity of the part of the brain responsible for learning. The dentate gyrus is a region of the hippocampus critical for retaining long term memory for facts and events. Exercise can target the dentate gyrus. At the end of the semester, the students performed the test again.
After comparison, “The results were significant,” Suzuki said. The test requires students to pick a certain geometric shape from other similar geometric shapes. Student who had exercised completed the test faster than their counterparts. Most studies examine the relationship between exercise and learning in the elderly; very few focus on young age groups.
“It’s pretty different, I wasn’t sure what it would be like.” said Andrew Sideris, an NYU senior, “I was happy to take it. It was a little weird, but a lot of fun.” Students such as Sideris have embraced the class. Casey Farin, another NYU senior, said, “I learned a lot about what happens to the brain when you exercise. Most people think about what happens in your muscles and heart.” She added, “I would definitely recommend this class to my friends.”
“Exercise and the Brain,” as the course is called, is not only an experiment studying the link between learning and exercise. It is also an experiment in education. It’s not recess, and it’s not quite PE. It’s something different. A course mandating exercise as part of its curriculum is unlike anything seen at any educational institution. But NYU is known for alternative classes and methods. For example, another course is devoted to playing and studying Guitar Hero.
When Suzuki first proposed the course to university administration, “They were enthusiastic.” Suzuki hopes to pave the way for a similar course at other universities as well as high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools.
The link between learning and exercise has long been established, but it’s difficult to find the application of such knowledge in today’s society. PE and recess are rapidly disappearing across the nation. According to the American Heart Association, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education programs or some equivalent. Suzuki said, “You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you take away PE because you say students need to study.” As her class has shown, exercise is an important factor in learning.
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