Training the Brain

By Chris Cooper

In Kids, Special Populations

June 18, 2013

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Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, talks to Chris Cooper about movement, the mind and CrossFit.

Can burpees help with math homework?

Dr. John Ratey thinks so.

The associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in 2008 wrote the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain based on the outstanding example of the Naperville School Board. The book summarized the experience of physical-education teacher Phil Lawler, who had implemented a before-school fitness program at the Illinois school.

“He threw out the balls. No more sports. Just getting fit: running, strength training, CrossFit-type activities for the junior-high-school kids,” Ratey explained. “He had this brilliant idea to use heart-rate monitors, which was a paradigm shift for phys. ed. Nineteen thousand kids in the district and only 3 percent were obese. Seventy-five hundred in the high schools and they couldn’t find a single obese kid. Not one. So this was astounding.”

Just as impressive: the school’s test scores.

“Two years before I learned about it, they had participated in the International Science and Math Test, which is given to every country in the world every three years. The U.S. is always in the low teens. The school district lobbied to participate as a country and came No. 1 in science and No. 6 in math,” Ratey said.

“The low obesity rate piqued my interest. The test scores got me on a plane.”

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4 Comments on “Training the Brain”

1

wrote …

Really interesting stuff. Good for those kids. And, hopefully, one day, we'll see more schools pushing activities again.

2

wrote …

Shortly after reading Spark, I was commenting about it to a friend who lives in Naperville and her daughters attend school there. She told me the high school also looks at an individual student's weakest subject and schedules PE right before that subject. As a result, they've watched the students scores rise in their weakest subjects.

What a great, inexpensive way to help our kids.

3

Jeff Martin wrote …

Great article Chris! I appreciate your dedication to this topic. CrossFit Kids visited Naperville several years ago. We modeled our recommendations for the teen study hall in part from the success they have had.

4

wrote …

Good article, and I enjoyed it very much. However, as an archaeologist I cannot help but point out one glaring error--we didnt' "get our genes" 100 million years ago; that was long before any identifiable primate ancestor. I think he meant to say 100 thousand years ago; Homo sapiens sapiens developed from a more archaic form of Homo sapiens sometime between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago (approximately), according to the latest research. Also, I'm not sure that appealing to some vague notion of hunter-gatherers developing intelligence through hunting and play etc. helps his argument much. Despite lots of hoopla of that sort in the popular literature, there is really very little if any solid evidence to back up such ideas (mainly because of the difficulty of matching such fine-grained hypotheses with the very coarse grained archaeological record). It seems very reasonable to propose that much of our behavioral and genetic makeup originated through natural seletion on small hunter-gatherer-fisher populations over those many millenia, but we should recognize this as conjecture or hypotheses, and not pretend it's fact. Why not just stick to the research on how exercise helps learning in living populations? Ok, I'm done with my soap box. Very inspiring article and I do want to read Spark.

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