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Why Movement is SO Hard for Most Everyone (except you)!

In the Stone Age (circa 10,000 B.C.) tribe of Bedrock, Fred and Wilma Flintstone lived with “modern-day” amenities such as foot-driven cars, gimmicky kitchen appliances, and suspect telephones. Those wacky, colliding worlds made the show a beloved cartoon. Yet, there’s another juxtaposition playing out daily in your brain in 2020. How you respond has a lasting impact on your health and well-being. Read on and prepare for a surprise learning from the Flintstones.

The Research

System 1 Thinking Brain

Our brain works off the first of two different systems: System 1 is reflexive, fast, and nonconscious (Kahneman, 2011). Cavemen and cavewomen moved quickly, made mistakes, and recovered … usually. Years ago, System 1 was called the “reptilian” brain system.

Biologically, our more primitive brain wants to conserve resources such as metabolic efficiency, processing energy, and response time. Energy is a precious commodity and conserving it for the daily hunt (at least thousands of years ago) could save your life.

Translated into today, it’s an easy choice to play the “short game” and conserve (sit on a couch, watch TV, and eat Cheetos). System 1 thinking might say, “Why should I move my own body (and my student’s bodies) every day? I’m tired and movement seems, well, hard.” In other words, conserve energy, hunt later, and live another day.

There is value in System 1 thinking – it is often responsible for keeping you alive today. It takes a different thinking system, however, to plant to keep you alive 15 years from now.

System 2 Thinking Brain

Our System 2 brain (reflective, thoughtful, and planning) will pause to evaluate (Kahneman, 2011). System 2 thinking might say, “Yes, it is much easier to take an escalator. But I’m here to play the long game. It’s worth the time. Bring on the stairs!” It is this thinking pattern that drives teachers to move their students much more at school or virtually.

Let’s pair these two understandings together. System 1 says to act quickly, don’t waste energy, and play the short game. That worked a LONG time ago. In today’s world, we need both our System 1 and System 2 brains to maximize our quality of life.

One of the main barriers to implementing more movement in schools is many educators believe it will take time away from other subjects without offering a compensatory benefit (Nathan et al., 2018). This is “short game” System 1 talking: “There’s no time for P.E. – I’ve got standards to cover.”

It’s time to leave Bedrock, and engage BOTH our System 1 and 2 thinking. Much of what people understand about the brain is out of date, including the significant impact movement has on your brain and health.

What Parts of the Brain are Impacted by Movement?

Any core understanding of the brain using “modularity” is outdated. First, we used to assign an action or job to each brain region. Each was boxed-in with a single action it was responsible for (amygdala: emotions; hippocampus: short-term memory; etc.). One storyline in that narrative was the cerebellum’s solitary role to regulate movement. Until recently, the cerebellum was often overlooked by education researchers who focused more on the “learning” regions of the brain.

Current discoveries show a far more interconnected story of brain function than we once understood. In addition to being highly involved in regulating movement, the cerebellum is connected to both cognitive function and emotional regulation (Schmahmann, 2019; Stoodley, & Schmahmann, 2010).

What is the relevance of these discoveries and what do they really say to us?

Finding ways you (and your students) can stay physically active will keep the brain, body, and spirit strong through what might be a difficult winter season. Invest in the future by moving your body every day (yoga, walks, runs, bike rides, sports, and games).

That will help you have a body that thrives and AVOIDS those “underlying conditions.” Yes, you will live through this pandemic and many more. That’s why it’s worth it for you to move you and your students more. 

The research in support of physical activity is robust. To keep it concrete and relevant for you, we’ll share the results of 3 different studies that illustrate the benefits of physical activity to cognition, physical health, and emotional regulation.

Physical Activity Improves Cognition

A high school in Chicago has found a way to use movement to quadruple students’ math scores. They also have students reading a year and a half ahead of their peers. Overall, the academic performance of students at this school place them among the top 5 in the world (Ratey, 2008)!

What’s their secret? Students take a PE class immediately before their most challenging subject. It is well researched that students who are physically active within an hour before learning demonstrate better long-term memory retrieval than those who did not exercise (Pontifex, Gwizdala, Parks, Pfeiffer, & Fenn, 2016).

How does this work?

Here is the short list of how movement impacts the brain and cognition.

Physical activity:

  • enhances circulation so that the cellular mitochondria and even individual neurons can get more oxygen and nutrients (Nyberg, Gliemann, & Hellsten, 2015).
  • regulates norepinephrine and heart rate, which is significant in terms of increasing blood flow to the brain and improving attention (Yang et al., 2016).
  • enhances working memory, short-term memory, and long-term retrieval of memories (Chen, Zhu, Yan, & Yin, 2016; Pontifex, Gwizdala, Parks, Pfeiffer, & Fenn, 2016).
  • releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a natural substance that enhances cognition by boosting the ability of neurons to communicate with each other (Griesbach, Hovda, Molteni, Wu, & Gomez-Pinilla, 2004).

In summary, physical activity engages several systems of the brain that boost attention, memory formation, and retention.

Physical Activity Improves Health

One study followed students for three years to track their physical activity and school absence. Some students increased their physical activity by 20%; other students decreased their physical activity by 20%. How did this impact their school attendance?

The students who decreased their physical activity were absent 12% more than the other students. That equates to approximately 22 extra days of missed instruction as a result of poor physical activity. That evidence is another reason why less-active students struggle in school (D’Agostino, Day, Konty, Larkin, Saha, & Wyka, 2018).

How does this work?

A sedentary lifestyle is one of the top 10 risk factors for all diseases, and it is responsible for 9% of all deaths worldwide (Lee et al., 2012). Poor exercise habits are linked to increased risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and dozens of other chronic diseases (Grazioli et al., 2017).

Physical activity boosts your immune system and provides protection from illness and disease. It can also reverse the effects they might already be having on you, your students, or other loved ones (Bermon, Petriz, Kajeniene, Prestes, Castell, & Franco, 2015; Varga, Kyselovič, Galfiova, & Danisovic, 2017).

In short, physical activity is arguably your most powerful tool to prevent and treat noncommunicable diseases.

Physical Activity Improves Emotional-Regulation

A large study was done with nearly 1,500 students from three low-income schools. Through scientific monitoring systems, student on-task behavior was tracked before initiating a long-term physical activity program. After 6 weeks of regular physical activity, the chance of a classroom reaching 80% of on-task behavior was seven times greater than before the exercise program. After 12 weeks, the likelihood of on-task behavior had jumped to 28 times greater than before the exercise program (Burns, Brusseau, Fu, Myrer, & Hannon, 2016). 

How does this work?

Movement helps regulate your mood and behavior.


The dopamine released when you exercise helps regulate your mood and hormone levels. It is not surprising that exercise is one of the most effective researched interventions for depression. In fact, there is evidence that exercise is a better intervention for depression than antidepressant medication or psychological treatments (Kvam, Kleppe, Nordhus, & Hovland, 2016).

Dopamine is also one of the brain’s and body’s main motivators – it is willing to do whatever it was that initiated the dopamine release. (Lloyd & Dayan, 2015). So, if you’re searching for more ways to motivate your students, add more physical activity to your repertoire of motivational tools.

The Complicated Relationship Between Movement and Stress

Physical activity often introduces short-term high levels of stress to your body. And that is good. Over time, those short-term bursts build your resiliency to daily stressors.

Although one cannot take away every source of stress, physical activity can improve your stress response. A student who has regular exercise habits will make healthier choices when faced with stressful circumstances. Also, their exercise routines will build stress resilience to help them better cope with future stressors.

A low dose of cortisol (the neurotransmitter associated with stress) can help a student focus, stay awake, and jump into action on a task (Sapolsky, 2015). Too much of it and they might get overwhelmed and unable to learn.

Cortisol is just one of the neurotransmitters related to movement. Neurotransmitters are a specific class of chemicals that can optimize brain function and student learning. Uppers (dopamine, norepinephrine, glutamine, etc.) must be balanced with an appropriate level of calming options (serotonin, oxytocin, gamma-aminobutyric acid, etc.). Too much (or not enough) of one kind or the other can lead to stress or depression.

In other words, the winning combination includes active movement, along with its counterpart of a more relaxed, focused movement to moderate these neurotransmitters. What does this mean for you and your choice of physical activity? Diversify your exercise routines to include both high impact (running, cycling, tennis) and low impact (yoga, tai chi, Pilates) activities.

Practical Application

Many teachers are chronically tired (maybe that’s you) and the number of students sitting in front of a screen is rising. Aside from advocating for a return of daily P.E. in schools, here are a few new ideas for you to keep students active during the school day.

Some release more “upper” neurotransmitters. Others release more calming neurotransmitters. (Because of the current situation with Covid-19, we are sharing strategies that support physical distancing. Please modify to adhere to your local safety requirements.)

Upper Movements

  1. 5-4-3-2-1

Write five actions in a list on the board (jumping jacks, squats, jumps, propeller arms, toe lifts, one-leg hops, etc.). Students then do the first action 5 times, the second action 4 times, the third action 3 times, etc. until they get to one. Modify the activity to do odd numbers (9-7-5-3-1), evens (10-8-6-4-2), or even multiples of 3 (15-12-9-6-3).

  1. Drive-by Gratitude

Give each student a post-it note as they enter the room. When they need a quick movement break, have them write a personalized message of gratitude to a person on the staff of your choosing (or they can nominate and vote). The movement comes as they all quickly run to that staff member’s classroom or office and place all the post-its somewhere and then race back to their classroom.

For younger students, have them cut a heart out of construction paper and give a staff member a “heart attack” by taping all the hearts to their door.

  1. Roll the Dice

Create a list of either 6 or 12 pre-determined activities, such as running around the building or freestyle dancing for 30 seconds. Post the list where students can see it. Keep a dice up front so you are ready when you sense the class needs an energizer. Have a student roll one (6 options) or two (12 options) dice and shout out the number. The class jumps into action to do whatever activity corresponds with the number that is rolled.

Calming Movements

  1. Wall Squats

Each student finds their own space with their back up against a wall. They slowly slide down until their knees form a 90-degree angle. The goal is for them to hold that position as long as possible. As a bonus, have a timer projected on the board so students can keep track of their time. Challenge them several times a week to improve their time by 1-3 seconds.

  1. 5-5-10 Breaths

Guide students through a simple deep breathing exercise: Inhale for 5 seconds; Hold your breath for 5 seconds; exhale for 10 seconds until all the air is gone. As a bonus, guide students into a simple yoga pose (mountain, warrior 1 or 2) while doing this breathing exercise.

For younger students, guide them to practice slow breathing. As they slowly inhale, they raise their arms at their sides to above their head (think of a slow-motion jumping jack arm motion). As they slowly exhale, they lower their arms.

  1. Desk Lean

Engage students in a deep stretch at their desk in a variety of ways:

  • Have students lunge (left foot forward; right foot back) while listening to your direct instruction, reading a selection of text, or completing a problem. Have them switch legs after each problem, page, or 1-min.
  • Desk push-up: think of it as holding a plank position, but students’ hands are on their desk or chair instead of the floor. Challenge them to hold it for 30 seconds and then build up from there.

It’s tempting to give into System 1 thinking, especially right now. Make the conscious choice to play the long game and include your System 2 thinking brain – for you and your students. You’ll both be happier, healthier, and learn better. Ya-ba-da-ba-do!

For more research and practical tools to implement more movement with your students, we wrote an entire chapter on the topic in the 2020 edition of Brain-Based Learning. Get your copy HERE. 


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