THE ancients although relied primarily on physical prowess to obtain food, needed to utilize their intelligence to devise new and creative ways to hunt and store animals. The relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into our brain's circuitry. In the modern world, although our survival no longer hinges on our ability to trap and kill a large animal, physical excursion is still plays an important role in our learning process.
As our species has evolved, our physical skills have developed into abstract abilities to predict, sequence, estimate, plan, rehearse, observe ourselves, judge, correct mistakes, shift tactics, and then remember everything we did in order to survive. the brain circuits that our ancient ancestors used to start a fire are the same ones we use today to learn French.
Evolutionary science taught us that learning is the survival mechanism we use to adapt to constantly changing environments. Inside the microenvironment of the brain, that means forging new connections between cells to relay information.
Emerging research shows that physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must be made; they reflect the brain's fundamental ability to adapt to challenges. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparallel stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready willing, and able to learn. Aerobic activity has a dramatic effect on adaption, regulating systems that might be out of balance and optimizing those that are not --- It is an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to reach their own full potential.
To better understand the link between mind and body, many scientist have focused their research on a particular class of master molecules, called BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor). To date there are more than 5,400 published researched papers on the topic. Scientists discovered something quite startling, namely that BDNF exists in the brain and nourishes neurons like fertilizers!
A study has been conducted about exercise and BDNF in mice. The finding was that exercise elevated the learning fertilizer (BDNF) throughout the brain. Another study conducted by UC Irvine shows that the increase in BDNF through exercise occurred not only in the motor sensory areas of the brain, it occurred in the our brain's learning center - the hippocampus as well! By showing that exercise sparks the master molecule of the learning process, Dr. Cortman from UC Irvine, established a direct biological connection between movement and cognitive function! [i]
A unique case study
An initiative known as Zero Hour PE, implemented by Naperville district 203, which requires high school participants to conduct rigorous physical exercise, where participants will reach 185 HPM prior to class shows a dramatic 17% improvement in reading and comprehension, compared with a 10.7% improvement among the other students who opted to sleep in and take standard phys ed.
TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) has been administered every four years since 1995. The 1999 edition included 230,000 students from thirty-eight countries, 59,000 of whom were from the United States. Naperville 203, who implemented the above Zero Hour PE program, enlisted their eighth graders for the assessment, incredibly finished first on the science section just ahead of Singapore and the rest of the participating country. On the math section, Naperville scored sixth, behind only Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan . As a whole, US students ranked eighteenth in science and nineteenth in math, which districts from New Jersey and Miami scoring dead last in math and science.
The results were staggering, even accounting for the relative prestige and affluence associated with the Naperville district, the correlation between their unique brand of physical education and its test score is undeniable. This is evident in poorer districts where Naperville- style PE has taken root, such as Titusville, Pennsylvania, where test scores have improved measurably. [ii]
In the context of our outdoor education model
At Zen Quest, our education model utilizes a scenic and diverse wilderness environment, where groups of students are arranged into teams, we set physical and mental challenges that have a perceived level of risk and adventure, the completion of which requires team work, physical prowess and intelligence.
Aside from the confidence it instills in participants of achieving tasks previously thought to be beyond their capabilities, the above research clearly indicates that such activities increase learning capabilities at a neurological level. Once a student is taken out of his usual environment, the wilderness provides such a environmental enrichment that is conducive to the opening of new neuron pathways, the physical activities increase the BDNF, which in turns provide an unparallel advantage to increase the learning capabilities in developing minds.
[i] John J. Ratey, MD and Eric Hagerman: Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain (Quercus London, 2010)