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parisiPublic schools started last week, and classes are now in full swing. Time to focus on improving students’ performance in the classroom. Most people agree that physical activity is essential for healthy growth and development of the body. But did you know physical activity also has positive effects on the brain and on school performance?

When we exercise, new brain cells are born in the hippocampus (the brain’s gateway to new memories). This is significant because not so long ago, neuroscientists just assumed that we were born with a certain number of brain cells, and that was it for the rest of your life. But research has shown that new cells are born throughout our lifespan, and the process for this is triggered by exercise. When we exercise – and it has to be vigorous enough to really make you sweat – neurogenesis, or the birth of new cells, is the result.

In the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical Center, explores the connection between exercise and learning. The book provides compelling evidence that aerobic exercise physically remodels the brain for peak performance. Exercise improves learning by not only helping the brain get ready to learn, but also by making it easier to retain information.

Studies have shown that students who participated in an exercise program every morning before the school day began showed significant improvement in both wellness and academic performance. In fact, students with higher fitness scores also have higher test scores. Here are some other ways that exercise can be the best defense against some common student health issues.

Stress. Students face enormous stress both in and out of the classroom, including work overload, testing, and peer pressure. Physical activity naturally helps prevent the negative consequences of stress by both warding off effects of chronic stress and by reversing those effects. Additionally, physical activity helps people become more socially active, which boosts confidence and self-esteem.

Anxiety. In Spark, Dr.Ratey’s research shows that the majority of studies have proven that aerobic exercise significantly reduces symptoms of anxiety. Exercise reroutes the brain’s circuits, reduces muscle tension, and helps to teach a different outcome to an anxiety-provoking situation.

Depression. As adults, we naturally know it: Endorphins produced in the brain during exercise contribute to an overall feeling of well-being. Exercise raises dopamine levels, improving mood and increasing attention span.

ADHD. And speaking of attention span, according to Dr. Ratey, structured exercise in the form of martial arts, ballet, skateboarding, or gymnastics is one of the best treatment strategies for ADHD. Why are these types of exercises so good? Dr. Ratey states that the combination of challenging both the brain and the body with these types of exercises and sports activities activates brain areas that “control balance, timing, sequencing, evaluating consequences, error correction, fine motor adjustment, intense focus, and concentration.”

It’s clear that providing students with challenging fitness programs has numerous benefits essential to learning and well-being. Social support, routine, and mixing up activities will help keep your child’s brain and body energetic and healthy.

At Merritt, we offer many programs for all ages, abilities, and fitness levels. Check out Les Mills Born to Move, our Dance Academy, Parisi Speed School, and our aquatics programs. For information on how some of Merritt’s programs can benefit your child, go to