As educators every school year is comparable to a Marathon. We start out happy and excited for what this year’s race will bring. Together packed in with our fellow educators we rush forward towards our personal and professional goals and aspirations. Then…. just like in a Marathon, we hit the wall and question if we can really finish this race. For educators (and especially those that work in Special Education) that “wall” comes right after Christmas when the 12 weeks of intervention wraps up, IEPs are due, requests for evaluations pile up and parents and teachers start to worry if all their efforts will help that struggling student pass the CRCT. These are the times when we feel like we want to give up and drop out of the race. However, it is at precisely these times of doubt we have to push forward and dig deep. We must take one thing at a time- putting one foot in front of the other until we reach the finish line. How, one may ask, can we do this if we want nothing more than to give up? According to John J. Ratey M.D., the answer may very well be exercise.
In his eye opening book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise, John Ratey elegantly lays out the science of exercise and how it can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, and sharpen your intellect- simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat. Exercise, he says, has many of the same neurobiological affects that prescription medication has including boosting levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. These are important neurotransmitters as they are believed to be responsible for regulating our mood and well-being (serotonin, dopamine) and increasing attention and focus (norepinephrine). By exercising we are better equipped to focus on what needs to get done and do it in a positive manner.
Exercise also appears to have a positive result on our ability to recover from stress and bounce back from the biological effects the stress-response has at the cellular level. It stimulates cell recovery, which may have been stripped down from over activation of our “fight or flight response.” This idea is truly groundbreaking as it highlights the neuroplasticity of the brain as well as the ability to activate neurogenesis (brain cell growth). The main player in this neurogenesis appears to be a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is known to promote the health of nerve cells. It is responsible for maintenance and preservation of nerve cells. It can be compared to the Department of Transportation (DOT) fixing potholes, paving new roads and building highways in our brain (only much more efficient). What Ratey shows through research study after research study is that chronic stress appears to wear down the cells in our Hippocampus which is responsible for learning and memory. With as little as thirty minutes of exercise levels of BDNF elevate in the brain and study participants do better on cognitive test of memory and learning. Further, BDNF also appear to be responsible for combating the degenerative effects of stress in the Hippocampus that leads to depression and anxiety.
According to Dr. Ratey, adding exercise to your lifestyle “sparks your brain function to improve learning on three levels: First, it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, mood, and motivation; Second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and Third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the Hippocampus.” So next time you feel like you want to drop out of the race due to feeling overwhelmed try to find time to go for a short bike ride, walk or participate in a sports activity. It may give you the energy you need to finish out the school year and complete those last few miles in your professional marathon.