Student Athletes Work Smarter by Working Out: A Q&A

By Faith Inello, Staff Writer.

After our great wins at Homecoming, everyone can see how hard LCA student athletes are working to better their bodies and their playing skills. Rain or shine, students can be found passing a soccer ball on the field or lifting weights in the fitness center. Even students who don’t play on a team get involved through their PE requirement. Regardless, some parents and teachers alike argue that sports and physical activity should be put on the backburner when it comes to prioritizing school work above all else. What they may not know are the ways that their rigorous sports schedules may actually be improving their performance in school. 

This past summer, I reached out to Dr. Charles Hillman and Dr. Art Kramer after reading their research paper Be Smart, Exercise Your Heart. Currently, they both work at the Northeastern Center for Cognitive and Brain Health running experiments to determine what lifestyle factors influence the brain. I interviewed both of them, asking different questions about how exercise affects school and health in general. Here are some cool things I learned from questions I asked during the interviews about the relationship between physical activity and mental activity:

  • Question: Is exercise an integral part of school?

Hillman: “In general, we are [removing]  physical activity from our lifestyles. We used to have to spend energy to get energy. We had to hunt, forage. Now, just pick up your phone, push a couple buttons, and a pizza arrives at the door, right? We use elevators over taking the stairs, kids drive to school instead of walking. PE not only gives you a chance to be physically active; it gives you the opportunity to learn different physical activity behaviors and build efficacy.”

  • Question: How many teens are actually getting the right amount of exercise?

Hillman: “The 2018 Physical Activity guidelines recommend that teenagers should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day of the week, not including at least two to three days a week of time spent engaged in muscle and bone building exercises. 60–75% of the US population does NOT achieve those guidelines.”

  • Question: What benefits do you see in the kids who are getting the right amount of exercise?

Kramer: “We know from research in exercise that new neurons tend to be born more frequently if you are an exerciser than not. Aerobic activity increases the connections and development of your neurons. More, faster, better connections means more memory, faster problem solving, and better attention.

Hillman: “Being physically active is also beneficial to a host of mental health disorders; depression, anxiety. For instance, we know that girls who play team sports are 90% less likely to get pregnant in high school and being physically active makes you less likely to abuse drugs.”

  • Question: Can any form of exercise produce these benefits?

Kramer: “We know the most about aerobics; bicycling, jogging, running, or swimming. We know they have all these positive effects on cognition, memory, and problem solving. Yoga ,Tai Chi, martial arts, self-defense: those kinds of Eastern practices also increase cognitive function! These exercises build up the vascular bed (arteries and veins) so you can supply the brain with more nutrients and blood. The mitochondria also become more efficient, and they become more numerous as a function of exercise.”

  • Question: How much exercise and at what time of day will impact study skills in teens?

Hillman: “A single 20-minute ‘dose’ of moderate walking will bring you benefits for up to an hour. And we’ve shown that as little as nine minutes of high intensity interval training (HIIT) will do the same thing.” 

Dr. Hillman and Dr. Kramer’s research also depicts a correlation between exercise and achievement in math and reading. Their study exhibits that the majority of kids who exercise for an hour or more a day actually score higher in math and reading than kids who do not incorporate aerobic exercise into their daily lifestyles. You can read more about this study here. 

Even smaller amounts of exercise are extremely beneficial to the brain in the long run, and there are so many different ways to choose from!  Cultivating a healthy lifestyle of chronic exercise does not mean herculean efforts in physical activity; it means being more mindful of how what we do — or many don’t do — will affect us now, and later on in life. Athletes at LCA who practice for two hours every day are likely to reap benefits in focus and retention when doing their homework; they may even score better on tests! Who doesn’t want every possible advantage to ace their exams? I know I do!

Thank you to Dr. Charles Hillman and Dr. Art Kramer for agreeing to participate in an interview! If you are interested in learning more about their work, check out their contact pages linked above and the website for Northeastern’s Center for Cognitive Science and Brain Health.