Monday, December 12, 2016

Physical Activity and Your Child's Academic Performance-Get Fit to Get Smart!

After several years working exclusively as an outpatient physical therapist, I returned to school-based therapy when I returned from Guyana. So far I am loving it. It has been a great experience and some days I cannot believe I get paid to play all day. However, there is one thing that I had forgotten about: how much of the day students sit. 

Students sit and sit and sit. And then teachers are surprised that they don't act well. As a physical therapist, I want to yell: Get up and move! But I work only with the students in special ed, so it's not my place, right? Not so fast. Evidence backs me up. 

We all know a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of early morbidity and mortality and don’t you think that those behaviors start as a child? Plus, it is well-established that physical activity and sports have a positive effect on children's physical health. Regular participation in physical activity in childhood is associated with a decreased cardiovascular risk in youth and adulthood. 

In an age where 1/3rd of our children are obese and 1/12th have or will have diabetes, this should be justification enough. But there’s more! Numerous studies have looked at the effects of physical activity  and its beneficial effects on many mental health outcomes, including quality of life and improved mood states. Throw in better coping strategies, self-esteem and lower rates of anxiety and depression and physical activity at school seems a no-brainer!

Beyond mental and physical health outcomes, evidence has begun to emerge supporting a link between physical activity, cognitive function, and academic achievement. Cardiorespiratory fitness, speed-agility, motor coordination, and perceptual-motor skill all appear to be associated with improvements in cognitive and academic performance. A meta-analysis published in 2013, suggested that while physical activity in general improved cognitive outcomes, the largest effect size was with cardiovascular exercise. This is consistent with Lees and Hopkins’ study that revealed aerobic physical activity to be positively associated with cognition, academic achievement, behavior, and psychosocial functioning outcomes (Lees). Being cardiovascularly healthy improves their brain function!  

A review article in the Journal of American Medicine Pediatrics summarized the hypothesized rationale for improved academic performance with higher levels of physical activity. They cited that there are three hypothesized mechanisms which include (1) increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain; (2) improvement in mood and reduction of stress due to increased levels of norepinephrine and endorphins and/or (3) increased growth factors that help to create new nerve cells and support synaptic plasticity. By increasing a child’s physical activity levels, we are in turn allowing them an improvement in their learning potential while decreasing their stress.

Although schools are able to offer unique opportunities for structured physical activity for children, there is a tendency to cut back physical education and reduce the amount of physical activity afforded students during the school day. The increasing pressures to improve academic scores often lead to additional instructional time for subjects such as mathematics and language at the cost of time for being physically active. Integrating physical activity into the classroom may increase learning and offset the decreasing physical education classes and recess. One recent systematic review found that physically active academic lessons of moderate intensity improved overall performance on a standardized test of academic achievement by 6% compared to a decrease of 1% for controls.

I am in the process of proposing a kinesthetic learning lab for the elementary school that I work at. This would allow students that opportunity to be active while learning through a variety of aerobic exercise machines and activities. The hope would be that this would help supplement the limited physical education and short recess offerings that they get throughout the week. It’s in its infancy but I am very excited about the possibility of helping improve both wellness and academic performance.

Here’s the thing though, schools cannot do it all. Parents need to be on board to promote and model healthy behaviors and physical activity at home. Which can be tricky.  You work all day and just want to relax when you get home. But this really is time when you can model healthful behaviors for your children. Go for a walk, play outside or(if you live up north) make a snowman. The key is to instill upon them a love of the outdoors and being active so they want to do it.

Together we can create a healthier and smarter next generation.

Until next time,


Monday, December 5, 2016

Rudolph's Rampage

This past weekend, Kenny and I headed back to Harbison State Forest to try our hands at Rudolph’s Rampage Half-Marathon. I was looking for redemption after getting lost during the Hairy Bison 15k. Kenny was looking to complete her first trail half-marathon with her goal to “not walk”.

We arrived early with the intent of warming up. However the cold temperature kept us in the car until right before the start. Yes, I realize that it’s snowing in New England right now, but I swear that 40 degrees feels like it’s freezing. That’s what a year in Guyana will do to youJ

It was an interesting start to the race with 10k racers starting 2 minutes before us. In theory, you’d expect that they’d be running a bit faster but in reality, we still had to get through all the back of the back racers. In fact, when we took off, the first three miles or so were spent off/on trail getting around the herds. A group of three of us took the lead and starting making the passes. We actually ended up passing each and every 10k runner in those first three miles. At mile 4 or so, we dropped one runner so now it was down to two of us. At the half-way mark, I could still hear number 2 but not see him. By mile 7, I was running alone.

I settled into a comfortable pace and just ran enjoying myself while trying to keep the pace high enough not to get caught. Every once in a while, a mountain biker would come up on me and I’d panic thinking I was getting caught by a runner and I’d do a little pick-up only to see I was mistaken. The course was very well marked and despite my natural inclination to get lost, I did not. I finished with a time of 1:28:38 for first.

I grabbed a long sleeved shirt and headed back out on the trail to cheer on Kenny. Having never done a half-marathon on trails before, she had asked me what would be a good time for her. I took her 15k pace and figured that out for a half so I told her a 2:04. Not having a watch as I was running, I didn’t know what the elapsed time was as I ran back towards her. At mile 12, I came upon her looking strong and smiling brightly. Meanwhile, I was starting to bonk. I tried keeping up with her to run her in that last mile but I could not. Luckily, I knew a short cut and met her at the finish.

She managed to beat my expectations with an awesome  2:01:33 for a 5th place overall female finish. Based on how smoothly she was running, I am guessing she didn’t leave it all out there on the trails. Meanwhile, those two extra miles left me gassed.

I am running the Harbison 50k the first week in January and that “cool-down” was discouraging. I cannot imagine running another 17 miles. Oh boy, guess I better start up with some long runs.

In addition to eating my calories back in donuts, I got a free pair of sunglasses and a gift certificate for Fleet Feet for the win. I'd say it was worth the effort especially for such a fun race. 

Until next time,