Let’s get physical
I’ve written about this before (see my post Pump Your Gray Matter). I’m writing about it again because recent research suggests more and more that exercise is equally useful for treating some mental health conditions as drugs. Physical activity is not just for our bodies- it’s for our brains. We’re all aware of the physical benefits of exercise, such as weight control, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of diabetes and increased energy, etc., but exercise has many psychological benefits, as well. Dr. John J. Ratey of Harvard Medical School is considered to be one of the foremost experts on the many essential effects that exercise has on mental health. He is also the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Dr. Ratey’s focus is on attentional disorders in children and adults and the role exercise plays in both physical and mental health. I’m especially interested in his views on physical and psychological health, barefoot running and more physical education (PE) in schools.
I grew up as an athlete, playing all kinds of sports, so I guess I was fit but perhaps not “fit” in the way we mean it today. I say that because I didn’t work out aside from sports practice. I didn’t go for long runs or hit the gym. Gyms in the 50s and 60s were mostly the realm of bodybuilders. Moreover, no one was labeled with the plethora of acronyms we see today, such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Instead, we were called “overly energetic,” which is lucky for me as I’m sure I would have acquired one those descriptions from the get-go! But these acronyms abound today. Have you ever wondered why?
Lost touch with moving
According to Dr. Ratey, humans who once relied so heavily on diverse physical movements, seem to have lost touch with this diversity in physical activities, including play. The digital world has drawn us into a sedentary culture that’s “literally killing us.” We’re not designed to sit still and glare at screens for hours and hours on end. Many kids aren’t moving at all. It seems they feel as if they feel don’t have to or don’t want to. The motivation and interest to move appear to be missing, aside from the PE they get at school. Movement is essential to us, especially diverse movements. We need to keep moving all parts of our body and maintain our sense of balance.
Zero hour PE
PE in school is slowly changing. Some schools are offering before-school elective exercise programs to get young brains ready for the day. You can read more about this at: (http://iphionline.org/pdf/P.E._Case_Study_Naperville.pdf). Educators are beginning to understand that fit students make better students. Students are more receptive, cooperative, attentive, quicker to learn and test better after exercise. I’m happy to report that my youngest son (entering the 7th grade) told us his teachers have a mandatory physical activity before big tests.
Balance and barefoot
“I see a huge problem with kids who have ADD, dyslexia, and autism. They really have trouble physically balancing as well as mentally balancing. By training the one you can have an effect on the other: the internalization of that balance can help you balance your cognitive and emotional life,” Dr. Ratey points out. But it’s not just balance that suffers. Modern comforts of today, such as padded soles in running shoes, also affect us negatively. “They throw everything off,” according to Dr. Ratey. “We are born to run barefoot. If you run with a heel strike, you put an incredible amount of torque and pressure on your knees, ankles and hips. Barefoot running shoes correct that by forcing you to land on the front part of your foot, which helps to correct or avoid joint damage. It’s strange that we’re made to move that way but don’t!”
Additional benefits of exercise
Exercise improves your mood by decreasing depression and anxiety. When you exercise, you boost your endorphin levels. Endorphins are the body’s famous “feel good” chemical that produces feelings of happiness and euphoria. Exercise also reduces stress, and who doesn’t want that? When you increase your heart rate, you stimulate the production of neurohormones like norepinephrine, which not only improve cognition and mood but improve thinking during stressful events. Exercise forces the body’s central and sympathetic nervous systems to communicate with one another, improving the body’s overall ability to respond to stress. Exercise also prevents cognitive decline and memory loss by strengthening the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Whether you hit the road, the gym, the pool or the bike, losing weight and gaining muscle tone adds up to increased self-esteem and confidence. And you’ll sleep better. Sounds like a win-win situation to me!