The ability of humans to move their bodies in search of food and safe places to live and dwell has aided our survival as a species for millennia.
But a lesser-known fact is that the movement from hunting and gathering has also aided the growth and function of our brains.
Psychiatrist Dr John Ratey proposes that movement is “crucial to every other brain function including memory, emotion, language and learning”.
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In fact, Ratey believes that the primary function of movement is to grow our brains and that any health benefits are secondary.
When we don’t take advantage of our biological predisposition to move and use our bodies daily, we can do serious harm to ourselves. In a longitudinal study in the US, scientists looked at the effects of a variety of negative health measures, such as smoking, obesity, and having high-blood pressure, on our life expectancy.
They were looking at the number of deaths that could have been avoided if that particular risk factor had been reversed (for example, by turning a smoker into a non-smoker). The study found that the strongest predictor of early death was low fitness. In fact, it was more dangerous than smoking or having high blood pressure.
Children are not moving enough
We should be worried about this because the latest statistics show that children in the UK are not moving anywhere near enough to stay healthy. According to the chief medical officer, children should be taking part in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every single day.
But a 2015 report by the British Heart Foundation showed that about 80 per cent of young people in England do not meet these guidelines. Although schools cannot and should not be expected to solve all of society’s ills, they certainly shouldn’t be adding to an already bad situation by reducing the amount of activity that children are taking part in.
Yet data from the Youth Sports Trust shows that as children go through our school system their participation in PE lessons drops from an average of two hours in KS3 to a paltry 34 minutes in KS5.
Another UCL study found that schools have been reducing the number of minutes in a breaktime (another crucial opportunity for physical activity): children aged 5-7 now have 45 minutes less breaktime per week than children of the same age did in 1995, while secondary pupils aged 11-16 have lost 65 minutes.
A magic bullet
When schools consciously promote active lifestyles, they set their children up for success. A 2015 Pisa study found that students who reported being more physically active showed “higher levels of life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing”.
We also know that fitter children have better attention spans and faster cognitive processing, and perform better on standardised tests than those who are less active, according to the American Institute of Medicine.
In short, schools that prioritise physical activity have children that learn better, get better grades and report feeling happier. What’s not to like?
How to get your students moving
• Provide a range good quality physically active clubs before, during and after school.
• Start the Daily Mile in addition to your PE provision.
• Take part in the School Games to give your children the experience of healthy competition.
• Encourage children to walk, scoot or cycle to school.
• Where possible, get children moving more in lessons where they’d normally be sedentary (BBC Supermovers can be great for primary schools).
Getting our children to be more physically active at school isn’t a nice add-on to a packed curriculum. It also isn’t a distraction from the serious business of learning.
As Plato once said: “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided them with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”
Adrian Bethune is a primary teacher, education policy co-lead at the Mindfulness Initiative and the author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom. He tweets @AdrianBethune