Exercise and the Brain

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1 Exercise and the Brain Daniela Nardelli has been a teacher of Mathematics and Physics for more than 20 years. She has a keen interest in understanding how the brain works and how to maximise student learning. This is a copy of her presentation notes: My name is Daniela and I am a teacher with a special interest in how people learn. Today I m going to talk to you about the brain and how you can make yours the best it can be. I m going to focus mainly on the role of exercise in building a better brain. Firstly, a question. Do you think that big brains are smarter brains? If I told you that Rob s brain has a mass of about 100 grams more than mine. Would you believe me? Would you think he was smarter than me? Put your hand up for yes for no. What about if I told you that the human brain has a mass of about 1.3 to 1.4 kilograms and that some whales brains might be as heavy as 7.7 kilograms.. Hey whales they must be much smarter than us humans! Right? Cells and the brain Who knows what a cell is? Cells are the building blocks or bricks that make up all living things, including humans. Our brains are made up of special cells called neurons. A brain contains as many neurons as the Milky Way Galaxy has stars. Each neuron is made of a cell body and a very long tail. The cell body has branches that extend out in all directions. They are called dendrites. Dendrites connect with other neurons so that information can be sent to the brain, around the brain and back to the body. Actually, what makes a brain smart isn t how much it weighs, or how physically big it is. When a brain learns, it makes new connections between the neurons inside it. The more it learns, the more connections it makes. You can keep those connections strong by exercising them. Your brain is kind

2 of like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it is and the better it is at learning. If you don t use it, or you damage it with injury, the connections between the cells will begin to DISconnect. So in fact, every time we learn new things, we are actually changing our brains. We are changing them because we are making new connections. When we learn new things, we not only make those new connections, we also help to maintain less- used parts of our brain. This happens throughout our lives. When we learn, we make connections, even if we are old like Robert our brains can keep on learning. So what about exercise? How can exercise help your brain be better? Scientists used to believe that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells and that the cells you were born with would be all the brain cells a person would ever have in their entire lives. So if a brain cell died, it could never be grown back. Well, now scientists think very differently about how the brain works. All cells in your body, including your brain cells, make themselves new every five months. Your skin cells renew every month 1. So our brains change in more than one way. They change as we learn and make new connections and they also change because we can generate new cells. But this doesn t just happen. We need to look after our brains to keep them changing in a positive way. The brain uses about 20% of the oxygen we breathe and about 20% of the calories we consume. Blood takes oxygen to all parts of our body, including the brain. If we want to get oxygen to the brain, we need to get our blood pumping. Our blood also carries glucose to our brains. This is really important because our brains use glucose as a fuel to keep it running. Without oxygen and glucose, our brains wouldn t work and would die. So how do we get the blood to our brains? Exercise! Exercise gets your blood pumping and increases blood flow to the brain. Exercise is one of the best things you can do to keep your brain healthy for the long term. Exercise improves your muscle tone and also the tone of your blood vessels, making them better at delivering the important blood to our whole bodies. Certain chemicals increase when you exercise, and these chemicals help to keep your blood vessels open and nicely shaped so that the blood can get through. Exercise also helps to produce antioxidants in all of your cells. Antioxidants fight away free radicals (toxins) and help to keep your cells free of damage. Exercise also stimulates new brain cells to grow. Scientists tested rats in laboratories and found that exercise generated new neurons. If the rats were made to use these news neurons, the cells survived and made connections to other neurons. If they didn t use them.. those new cells died. So when you exercise AND THEN use your brain, you make these cells permanent. Exercise also directly assists the brain cells to bind to one another. So what kind of exercise is best? Well, you have to get your heart pumping! Exercise that increases blood flow is great for your whole body. By this I mean cardiovascular exercise like running, walking, swimming etc. It is also important to strengthen your muscles. For example, by doing sit ups or push ups.

3 The best kind of exercise is any type that requires that you use your body AND your mind. Sports like netball, where there is strategy involved are really important. You have to track the ball, you need to plan your shooting, you need to think about where you should stand and predict what could happen next. Exercise helps to grow new cells, thinking helps to connect them to other cells so that they don t die. Combining exercise and thinking is very important. So why do we do drills? Learning new things helps our brain to then learn other things more efficiently. Using our brains keeps them healthy. So if we play a game of netball, we need to use our brains quite a lot. Every game is different, different strategies will apply and our brains are working all the time. Drills are also really important. When we learn something new, a connection is made. Making a connection means that the brain cell will live. If a cell doesn t make a connection to another, it will die. OK, so we make a connection in netball by learning a new skill. But how do we make that connection STAY! In terms of your brain - use it or lose it! Drills are important to keep that new connection present and working efficiently. If you don t practice a new skill you could very easily forget it! Drills help you to make new skills easy to do automatic. This is important because during a game, you may not have time to re- think and strategise you just need to act! The same is true of academic things we learn. Imagine if you learnt something in Maths just once and you never looked at it again. And then a year later, your teacher gave you a test on that same thing. You would never remember it. Sure, you grew a cell, you connected it, but then you didn t practice and then the connection went away. That s why study and practice for your school subjects is really important use the knowledge, reinforce the connections in your brain or they may just go away! Study is important how do you fit it all in? From today s session, I hope you can see the benefits of exercise AND the benefits of study. Sometimes it s hard to fit in all of your commitments especially when they are all important. To make sure that you get yourself ready to learn, you need to have a plan. You could begin by planning your study time around your sporting commitments. Draw up a grid showing the days of the week and the hours in a day. Block out times when you are at school you ll be learning heaps then! Next block out the times when you need to train or play a game. What s left? You need to eat and sleep that s really important! Look at the remaining time. A good way to plan your time is to allocate time for tasks which need to be done like the homework your teacher sets you. Generally, that will mean that you could have homework for each subject you did that day at school. If you have Maths on a Monday, chances are that you will have Maths homework on a Monday! Importantly, you need to put time aside for your academic drills the times when you practice what you ve learnt so that it doesn t go away. Do you have an hour or so spare each week that you could

4 dedicate to revision of what you did that week? Remember that you need to reinforce connections in your brain to keep them strong. Have a look at your plan. Is it balanced? Do you need to re- shuffle or re- prioritise? You can t spend all of your time on the fun stuff and you shouldn t just study all of the time. My top 10 study tips: Keep your study space brain- friendly. This means removing all distractions. The brain does not fully develop until a person is about 21 or 22. From about this age, we develop a part of our brain that keeps us on task and avoid the fun stuff the distractors. Young people need to work harder to avoid distractions because that part of their brain has not fully developed. So help out your brain by getting rid of Facebook and other social media, TV, mobiles phones and any other thing that could distract it. Your study space should also be comfortable and inviting you need to like being in that space! The brain can t actually multi- task. What it s actually doing is very quickly shifting between one task and the next. It might seem like we can watch TV and study at the same time, but our brains can t actually do this. It might only take microseconds for the brain to make its shift, but over an extended period of time our brain is working much harder and this is not efficient study time anymore. (Refer to Brain Rules for some more in depth info) Study regularly. Don t just do homework put time aside on a regular basis for revising and reviewing what you ve learnt. Reinforce the learning pathways and help to consolidate them with regular practice. Refer back to you study planner and keep yourself on track! Link information together. Information is better remembered when it links to something you already know. For example, if you try to remember a whole heap of random shapes, you probably couldn t. Make those shapes into a recognisable picture or form and you are more likely to remember them. The same is true of words make them into a story. Flow charts of information work in a similar way. So do labelled diagrams. You tend to then remember the information as a whole rather than many small parts which is much harder to do. Don t just read and re- read information. If it s something like maths, do LOTS of practice problems. Different types of problems from different sources will give you a breadth or range of practice. Note the problems you couldn t do and then ask your teacher or study buddy ASAP for some help. Don t leave questions unanswered because you felt silly asking! For English, don t just read the book, discuss it with another person. Summarising and then telling others about what you ve read is a great way to make sure you really understood it. Sleep well. Teenagers need about 9 hours sleep each night. Studies show that sleep deprivation from staying up late leads to poorer scores on memory tests and maths tests and greatly reduces your ability to avoid distractions. Sleep is important for rejuvenating the brain and also for consolidating what you have learnt reinforcing those pathways so they stay connected. The sleeping brain is also able to clear out toxins at a greater rate than the alert brain. It is also a myth to think that you can catch up on sleep later on. The trick is to be consistent with your sleeping habits. Give yourself a break. Every 45 to 60 minutes, take a break and have a chat or use social media or whatever means you like to give your brain a break from study. Your break should

5 be about 5 to 10 minutes long. Take a longer break every few hours as well. Exercise, like a walk could be very helpful (especially in these longer breaks). You ll increase the oxygen to your brain and that s a great way to keep it working efficiently. Before you sit down to study, it s good to plan ahead and decide on a specific time for breaks. Just make sure you stick to it! Don t let yourself be distracted too early! Ask for help. Keep a separate note book next to you at all times. As soon as you come across something you don t understand, write it down. Then make sure to ask someone for help as soon as you can. By writing these down, you won t forget what it was that had you perplexed! Exercise and eat well. Regular cardiovascular activity is important for your brain health as well as your physical health. Eating well will give you the nutrients and energy to stay physically healthy and keep your brain function in top gear. Lastly. The brain is about 80% water. Stay hydrated! Drink plenty of water and avoid caffeine loaded drinks. Sources: Books: Making a Good Brain Great Daniel G. Amen, M.D. 1 The Brain that Changes Itself Norman Doidge, M.D. Survive Exams John Cadogan Keep Your Brain Alive Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D. & Manning Rubin Brain Rules John Medina Websites: the- mind/human- brain/brain1.htm

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