Exercise in schools for brain health
Educational neuroscience combines insights from education, neuroscience and psychology to enhance learning, inform teaching policy and practice, and help young people achieve more at school. It also aims to dispel common and unhelpful misconceptions or ‘neuromyths’ about how we learn and how the brain functions.
“The loss of learning and developmental opportunities during the pandemic, and the impact on mental wellbeing of not being in school, have been incredibly challenging for young people,” says Dr Catherine Wheatley, a researcher at WIN. “We need evidence-based tools and strategies to help pupils catch up without piling on the pressure.”
Catherine was part of WIN’s Fit to Study programme, which investigated the impact of high-intensity physical activity during school PE on young people’s cardiovascular fitness, learning and thinking skills and mental health. The intervention, tested in 80 state secondary schools, was underpinned by evidence from neuroscience that aerobic exercise increases the flow of blood and nutrients to the brain, and enhances the growth of new neurons and new connections between them. This can in turn support attention and memory. Better fitness can also enhance stress resilience by optimising physiological and biological stress responses.
The research programme found small but clear positive links between physically-active lifestyles and both learning skills and mental health - evidence that the Fit to Study team has been sharing with teachers and also with parliamentarians. Catherine was among a group of Oxford researchers who submitted evidence to the House of Lords committee on a national plan for sport and recreation.
“School is an important environment for encouraging physical activity because it includes all young people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Catherine. “The overall evidence that more exercise lead to better results in school is still patchy, but the message that it is linked to better brain health is more relevant than ever.”