Will gym fix it?

2nd March 2007 at 00:00
Is exercise good for both body and mind? Kairen Cullen investigates

Morag is one of the most effective teachers I have ever worked with. Her challenging Year 6 pupils achieve much and behave well. She starts every school day with PE. Her rationale is simple: allow the children to release excess physical energy, get the blood circulating to their brains, and then they will be in the right state of mind to learn. She also happens to be an extremely experienced, confident and fit woman, who has always enjoyed sport.

On a common sense level, few would dispute the idea of a complementary relationship between brain and body. But what is the research basis for these beliefs? While there is mounting evidence that physical activity has beneficial effects on people's well-being, it is far from clear how it affects their ability to think.

In 2002, Dr Nanette Mutrie reviewed the available research on the effects of physical exercise upon psychological function. She found it was difficult to isolate specific variables and pinpoint cause and effect, and that many of the samples were small. Her review concluded that more high-quality research was needed into "the effects of physical activity and exercise upon mood, self-esteem and cognitive function across all age groups and both sexes".

I was surprised, therefore, to find so little recent research into this area with children. Much of the available research has been conducted with older adults (eg, Colcombe et al. 2004). This has provided some evidence that exercise can reduce the degenerative effects of ageing - loss of brain tissue density in the frontal lobes, the site of "executive" function for cognitive tasks requiring complex thought and attention, such as planning, coordination and working memory.

Another study (Dishman et al. 2006) confirms the links between exercise and executive function of cognition and some types of learning relating to physical coordination and movement.

The lack of evidence has not deterred the Government from promoting sport within education. Always keen to produce straightforward solutions to the nation's development and health, ministers have provided huge financial backing to projects such as Sport England.

Now the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is researching the effects of regular "high quality" PE - accredited sports coaches giving children two hours' instruction a week in schools.

It is good to know that time and money are finally being used to conduct real-world research in schools. I just hope it will include asking teachers such as Morag to share their knowledge Kairen Cullen is a chartered educational psychologist

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