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A New Paradigm for College Learners

See if you can guess the topic of this blog. What’s free, takes only 30 minutes a day, can be done inside or outside, can be done by people of all ages, improves the brains ability to pay attention, extends concentration, and improves mood and memory and makes learning new things easier. Did you guess exercise? Then you are one hundred percent correct!

Dr. Laura Carstensen the Director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity says, “Rarely do neuroscientist, psychologist and physicians unequivocally agree on anything but they do agree that exercise is the best thing you can do for your brain.” Harvard Psychiatrist John Ratey in his 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain writes “exercise is the single most important thing a person can do to improve their learning.”

The reasons are exercise―and here I am talking about exercise that gets you to raise your heart rate, break a sweat and lasts 30 minutes―causes the brain to release greater amounts of three important neurochemicals: noradrenalin, dopamine and serotonin. These three neurochemicals improve several brain functions that are vital to new learning:

  1. It improves the brain’s ability to pay attention which is the cornerstone of learning. The brain only learns what it pays attention to and when it comes to new learning it can only pay attention to one thing at a time.
  2. It improves the brain’s ability to concentrate and focus which result in a person being able to stay on task for longer periods of time.
  3. It improves a person’s mood and motivation for new learning.

In addition, and perhaps even more exciting is that exercise causes the brain to make more of a protein called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which stimulates the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and learning and actually makes it easier for neurons to wire and fire which is the basis of new learning.  John Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the Brain”. BDNF also repairs damage done to brain cells and strengthens the synaptic connection between neurons. Psychologist Jesper Mogensen, of the University of Copenhagen studies show that exercise can actually reverse the damage done to brain cells by long term stress. Mogensen says, “The brain responds like muscles do, growing with use and withering with inactivity. Exercise causes neurons (dendrites) to grow and bloom, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

If all of these benefits were not enough, a study by J. Mark Davis and colleagues at the University of South Carolina found that exercise increases the number of “master regulator mitochondria” brought online by the brain which results in an increase in the brain’s energy supply which in turn allows the brain to work faster and more efficiently.

All of these exciting new findings brings with them new hope for improved learning at all levels of schooling as well as the potential for protecting the aging brain from various maladies. These findings also bring with them a new level of responsibility for college-aged learners. With the evidence clear that students who exercise are optimizing their brains for learning, provided they get enough sleep, eat well and drink enough water to keep their brains hydrated, the question becomes:

Is not exercising the equivalent of not doing homework or assigned readings which are associated with being prepared for class?

In all areas of professional practice when new evidence is discovered that overturns previously held beliefs, practitioners are obligated to implement the new protocols  or use the new medicine. Should this not be true of education as well?  Should students, knowing that exercise can optimize their brains ability to learn, not be asked to accept this responsibility to exercise?

I suggest that these findings about exercise as well as the findings about the  influence sleep has on learning and memory which are just as robust suggest  the need for a new paradigm for student learners: that being prepared to learn is a daily responsibility of every college student. We as teachers have always been seen as being responsible for motivating and challenging our students to do their best, and rightfully so. However, the success of our work has always been at the mercy of our students’ willingness to be prepared to learn, and then putting in the time and effort needed to be successful. I believe these findings about exercise (and sleep) obligate students to step up and accept a new responsibility for being prepared to learn.

Graduation rates at major universities have changed little over the past 30 years. Perhaps one reason is that students attending those universities never knew how to really prepare themselves for learning.  Is it possible that raising graduation rates could be as simple or difficult as getting students to recognize that their academic success and eventual graduation may depend as much on the actions they take towards their sleep, exercise and diet as any of the other learning actions they typically take?  I say yes!


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