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Exercising the brain

February 15, 2010

Yesterday, under sunny skies, on beautiful trails, I skied the Mora, Vasaloppet nordic ski race. Several Northfield folk participated, including two of ARTech’s students – Leif O and Peter B. Leif completed the 35K and finished some distance ahead of me. I reckon it was probably his superior knowledge of ski wax that made him go faster:)
Checking out the results and times last night on the Vasa website, I noticed that, despite my advancing years, I was far from the oldest participant in the race. In fact, many skiers were in their 60s and 70s (sadly, most of those finished ahead of me). Nordic skiing is a great example of a sport that attracts an attitude of health and wellness in people of all ages.
It’s an attitude of physical health and well-being that we are most interested in developing here at ARTech. Of course, without a traditional gym on site, the PE program has to be approached with some creativity. We consciously organize hikes, field trips to college gyms, downhill ski outings, dance, experiential learning camps and May Term activities that incorporate time in the great outdoors. At the moment, Sarah, Rebecca and I are in conversation with the good folks up at Manito-Wish negotiating a plan to make our fall visit up North a more extensive and sustainable part of our program.
This quarter, under the leadership of Jake and Todd, ARTech is in collaboration with the Northfield YMCA to provide health and wellness options for our middle school and high school students. Under the guidance of the YMCA staff and utilizing the Armory gym and the Wellness Center, students are participating in a variety of sports, learning yoga and using exercise machines. As part of the high school program, students are monitoring their heart rate and flexibility before and after exercise. We very much want to watch and see how this goes with the intention of making this a regular part of our programming. In the process, we have to navigate scheduling, transport details and cost but it should be well worth it. The students have already let us know how much they are enjoying it.

In his book Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey makes a powerful case for exercise as an antidote for overweight, unmotivated adolescents. The book makes the case for a link between exercise and brain development. Ratey cites emerging research showing that “physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another.” He goes on to make the claim that exercise creates “an environment in which the brain is ready, willing and able to learn.”
Ratey takes a look at innovative school PE programs that eschews the traditional sports model in favor of developing a greater awareness of what constitutes individual health and well-being. In support of this approach is the striking statistic that less than three percent of adults over the age of twenty-four stay in shape through playing team sports.
In his study of school exercise programs, Ratey quotes on program leader as saying: “it’s not my job to make kids fit. My job is to make them know all of the things they need to know to keep themselves fit.” It seems an appropriate, and manageable, attitude for a small school like ours, especially if the parents are partners in nurturing this positive attitude to physical well-being.
It’s important. After all, the book’s most frightening statistic is that 30 percent of US schoolchildren are overweight.

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