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April 12th, 2010
03:48 PM ET

Studying the link between exercise and learning

By Elizabeth Mo
CNN Medical News Intern

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.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


February 26th, 2010
07:59 PM ET

Happy person makes for a happy heart

By Elizabeth Mo
CNN Medical Intern

I have little to smile about when it comes to my morning commute in the New York City subway system. It’s crowded, it’s dirty and it’s stressful. Some people read to pass the time, a few sleep, and others sing (I really wish they wouldn’t). I, like the majority, stay aloof. Occasionally, someone passing between carts will interrupt my blank staring with, “Why the long face?” Well, I simply don’t feel like smiling.

But maybe I should try.

A recent study published in the European Heart Journal found that a good mood can have a positive affect on your heart. In 1995, Dr. Karina Davidson of the Columbia University Medical started following 1,739 Canadians who had no heart conditions. More than 10 years later, 145 people had developed heart problems.
After examining the data, Davidson found that happier people are less likely to develop heart conditions such as heart disease.

Happier people tend to lead healthier lifestyles including smoking less and exercising more, which decreases the risk of heart problems.

"If you aren't naturally a happy person, just try acting like one," Davidson says, “It could help your heart.”

There is a strong relationship between stress or depression and heart disease. Stress releases hormones that ultimately damage cardiac muscle. Certain genetic factors related to heart disease can also play a role in developing depression. However, can acting happy help your heart? Will smiling when I don’t feel like smiling help my heart as much as when I smile naturally?

“There is evidence that trying, for a day, to 'act' happy leads to higher ratings of daily satisfaction at the end of that day,” Davidson says. It is this increased level of daily satisfaction that might improve heart health. She notes that this was an observational study and didn't address causality. She is interested in doing a study that would determine whether acting happy actually prevents heart problems from developing.

Now, I sit on the subway and wonder whether Canadians are more prone to happiness. Between the Olympics and maple syrup, it’s very possible. I think of what 1,700 Canadians descending on New York subway system might look like and I laugh. Then someone passing from cart to cart screams, "What’s so funny?" and continues past.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

 


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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