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Better learning outcomes through exercise. Counsel, teach, and parent more effectively by using exercise to improve learning with a better-prepared brain.

Updated: Feb 14

 




In counseling therapy, education and when parenting we often focus on repetitions (reps) to help people learn. We teach them skills, we provide structure, and we give them an opportunity to practice. Good counseling therapists, teachers and parents form a strong positive relationship with their client, student or child. They do their best to help engage them from different angles to help them learn in a way that works best for the individual. I would argue that the best therapists, teachers, and parents will go one step further by promoting physical exercise before learning to improve learning outcomes.



The problem.... Time


One problem we all have is time. As the old saying goes, that I have had to listen to my father say to me a thousand times, “We have and always have had all the time there is.” It feels like we never have enough time, and we always need more of it. I am generalizing, but how many times has a therapist engaged in the same or similar cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention hoping this is the time it clicks for their client? How many times has the teacher hoped that this is the time their student will figure out what 84 divided by 7 is? How many times will a parent say to themselves, “Today is the day Sam does what I’ve asked them to do.” All while this is happening, we are losing time.


How can we maximize our learning and minimize time taken away from other things we need or want to do? My sons are 5 and 9 years old. Like many of us they have their own personal challenges. Both of our boys are working to catch up or stay on track academically. Each day for homework their teachers have asked them to practice word recognition, reading, spelling and math. They are asked to practice more repetitions to help them learn. I know this helps, but I also know as a busy family we only have so much time. They get up between 6:00am and 7:00am most mornings and like most kids they like a little screen time, then they have food and then they need to get dressed and get on the bus by 8:05. They get home at 3:30pm and they start their bedtime routine at 7:45pm. That means every morning they have between 1 and 2 hours to do things. Each afternoon they have about 4 hours. That is not a lot of time when you start adding in some screen time, exercise, parent play time (relationship building), independent play time, and extracurricular activities. Without academics it is already nearly impossible to do all those things every day. The pressure of being a good parent is stressful. We had to find a way to try to be more efficient with our time.  Our answer has been to prioritize exercise and not worry as much about the academic time at home. We decided to prepare them to learn better at school by exercising every morning.



The Science


Generally, anyone that does not live under a rock knows that exercise is incredibly important to physical health, it relieves stress, regulates mood, decreases depression and anxiety. But few people seem to understand exactly how or why. A lot of information about all the benefits of exercise has been well documented over and over by many professionals. Quite honestly, it is hard for me to ignore all the medicinal benefits of exercise in this article, but I am doing my best to focus on using exercise as strategic intervention to improve learning. I think it is best explained in the book “Spark” by John Ratey in 2008. It is not a quick, easy read. I read it years ago and loved it. I relistened to it last year on Audible while driving to use my limited time efficiently. I found I had to listen to sections multiple times to make sure I understood it correctly. By the time I was done it felt like the answer to every problem in life was exercise.


 



Image From Sengar, Surender Singh. 2018

 

Exercise is not the answer to all our problems, but it is almost always an effective part of the answer. When we exercise at a moderate or high cardiovascular level our body creates more neurons, brain growth factors, and releases helpful hormones in our brain (Ratey, 2008). When we exercise, we prepare our brain for learning. We learn faster, more efficiently, retain more information and we are better able to focus. Ratey referred to it as brain fertilizer. If you have a nice lawn, then you are probably familiar with the impact fertilizer has when you combine it with water and sun. If you fertilize your brain through exercise before you learn then you will learn faster and remember more. You cannot always make the sun shine (the learning environment) and more water does not always mean more grass and if you have a dug well like we did for many years, sometimes you run out of water and time (repetitions). You need the right ingredients in the soil.



How to use exercise to improve learning and save time


Our plan has been to use the knowledge I gained from reading “Spark” to help our sons learn better and maximize time efficiency. In my home we are humans (loosely speaking) and not every day goes like we plan. We try our best to be consistent over the long term. As part of our plan we have chosen to make sure our children are up by 6:30am. That gives them enough time to have a little screen time, eat, exercise, maybe some independent play time, and get ready for school. We are focusing less on learning reps at home and more on preparing their brains to learn more efficiently when they arrive at school. Our boys can also do exercise in the afternoon to earn extra screen time in the afternoon and evening. Each time they exercise they are fertilizing their brains and preparing to learn, whether it is math or their favorite hobby. They still do the learning reps, but fewer of them. We are focusing on creating more quality reps by preparing their brains. In return they learn better, and we all have more time for other things we need or want to do.



Professional use of exercise


As mental health professionals at Adventurelore we run many different types of programs. We work with many different schools, families and individuals. One thing we do with almost all our groups and all our clients is some form of physical exercise. It can be games, challenges or something more traditional like going for a walk or a bike ride. We know that CBT intervetions work for many clients. Before we do CBT we often engage our clients in exercise. By doing that we fertilize the brain and regulate their mood to have better learning and growth outcomes from the CBT intervention. We may only need a few minutes to have an effective CBT intervention because they feel better, their mood is regulated, they have more energy and the brain is ready to focus, learn faster and remember more.


During a break while I was working on writing this article, I had a boy come into our office for his counseling session. Something significant had happened earlier that day. I knew he just spent a long ride getting here, probably on screens, and his mood was depressed. I asked him when he would like to talk about it. He said "now." I had a feeling that was a bad idea, but I have worked with him long enough for him to be driving the car of our session and I monitor the breaks. I knew he wanted to get the talking over with and be able to play a game. We attempted to process the incident using traditional CBT methods, but his brain was not ready to learn. He was angry, sad, and stuck. He could not see any possible courses of action or change in outcomes. He certainly was not able to recognize the maladaptive behavioral pattern and lack of emotional regulation that caused the issue. This was not a productive CBT intervention. He was unable to follow the CBT process. I did my best to validate his feelings while not reinforcing the negative behavioral patterns. I left the door open for revisiting the subject. I knew we needed to get moving. We went upstairs in our office and played some gaga ball for about 15 minutes. That got his heart rate up. I could feel his energy had changed. Now he wanted to go outside and do some archery. We headed outside and got a few rounds in. Archery did not raise his heart rate as much, but it did keep him moving and regulated his brain. Most of that time I spent focusing on being present in the activity, but here and there I started to open the door to talking about the incident. I knew we were in a good place. We went back into the office for the last 10 minutes. We grabbed some hot chocolate and headed to my office. It was like I was processing with a different kid. All his prior defenses were down because we had regulated his mood through fun activities that were physically active. His brain got some fresh fertilizer for learning and productive problem solving. We had a brief, but effective CBT session and we were able to create an action plan for moving forward. I am not going to say the ending was magical, but it was productive and his brain was functioning significantly better than when he came in.

 


How can parents get their children to engage in physical activity?

 

It is a challenge for most of us to exercise, never mind convincing someone else. This answer could be another whole article, but briefly I will make some recommendations to think about. The answer for everyone will be different and probably change with time. If you are struggling with this I would suggest you seek help from a professional to do parent planning/coaching.

 



  • Get them involved in active extracurricular activities like sports. Try different ones and see if there is one for each season they will enjoy. This is trial and error and may change over the years.

  • Make it fun (games and activities or challenges). Think about what’s fun to them and be creative and find a way to use that to engage in physical activity.

  • Do it with them or be involved. This way you are role modeling. You are also being time efficient because your working on building positive connection and getting the benefits of exercise.

  • Use appropriate incentives. Example, “Pizza on Friday night if we do our exercises during the week.”

  • Change it up. It can get boring if you’re always doing the same things and you can lose interest.

  • Educate them (age appropriate). For many people once they understand the physical and psychological benefits, they may be more motivated.

 


What can mental health counselors and social workers do?


I recognize that most clinicians do not have the environment and tools available that we have at Adventurelore. When my father started this program 43 years ago he did not have much either. I would urge you to be creative. Books have been written about how to do it including two of ours, “Adventurelore” by Dr. Jason Holder and the “50 Best Group Games and Challenge Activities” By Dr. Jason Holder and Dr. Eileen Sullivan. Adventure-based therapists, even in individual therapy, are writing and presenting more. There is plenty of information out there to help guide your practice. Here are a couple of quick, easy recommendations.



  • Engage in physical activity with your client. It could be yoga or a walk. Ideally something that raises their heart rate to a moderate or even high intensity level of effort. Matching your activity to your client is important. Think about what they would buy into, not what you like to do for exercise. I would encourage you to do your research beforehand. Telling a client to go on a 3 mile hike with you when they have never walked around a track once is probably going to be discouraging for the client and possibly unsafe.

  • If you have privacy, practical, or ethical concerns consider developing a plan with your client to do moderate to high intensity physical exercise before session so that their brain is well prepared for when session begins. Make sure they are healthy enough to engage in the level of exercise they plan to do.

 

 

What can schools and communities do?


Mental health and obesity are two major crises in the United States and many countries around the world. In the book “Spark” studies specifically demonstrate the increased test scores and positive educational outcomes in schools that start their day with physical activity. If schools allocated more of the academic time to physical activity before learning they may be able to get the same or improved academic gains while also engaging students with enough physical activity to regulate their mood, improve their focus, and enhance their physical and mental health. In the same length of a school day you may be able to get more total developmental gains for students academically, socially, emotionally and physically.



  • Exercise in the classroom during learning breaks.

  • More recess with encouragement in activities that will engage their cardiovascular system.

  • Pair physical education teachers with counselors or social workers to create groups that use exercise and therapy together, activity-based therapy. In our home town of Danville, NH the school counselor and physical education teacher have put this into place and see the positive impact it has on the students.

  • More physical education classes. In an ideal world most schools would add second or third gymnasiums to make this easier and/or make outdoor space usable year round.

  • Before school access to exercise equipment at school (high school ages).

  • Increase extra-curricular activity offerings that involve physical exercise.

 

I recognize that some of my suggestions (but not all) come at a financial cost. Some may save time and money in the long run. I would urge educators, school board members and community members to be creative. If there is one thing I have learned partnering with so many school districts, if you put in the effort, you can find grant funds, shift funds in some cases, or raise money to accomplish these things. It is not easy, but it is possible. Educate your community, advocate for physical exercise in schools. Like keeping up the foundation on your home, you save money by investing early. It can save taxpayer dollars and more importantly create a healthier, smarter, happier group of youth in your community.

 


In conclusion


The strength of the relationship between client and counselor, student and teacher or child and parent will probably always be the best predictor of growth outcomes. We know that things like diet and sleep are also critical to mood, health, and learning. Physical exercise is a tool, not the only tool we have to help learners. It often takes the strength of the relationship with someone to help people engage in physical exercise. We know that exercise is some of the best preventative medicine you can take for both physical and psychological disease. Another amazing thing about exercise is that if you do it at critical moments before learning you save yourself the limited time we have by getting improved learning outcomes, and physical and mental health gains at the same time. When we are learning, instead of more reps, we want to do quality reps with a brain functioning at its best and one proven answer to that is physical exercise before learning. I cannot help but add this one thing, if you want it to be sustainable make it FUN for everyone!

 

Written By

 

Ryan Holder M.Ed, LMHC

Program Director Adventurelore LLC

Certified Physical Education Teacher

Certified School Counselor

 

 

 

Sources:

Ratey, John. Spark. 2008. Copyright John Ratey MD 2008. Cover Copyright Hatchet Book Group 2013.

Sengar, Surender Singh. Why Physical Exercise Is Important for the Brain. 2018

 

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