Health

One Small Change Turned These 19,000 Students Into the Fittest and Smartest in the US

August 9, 2012

Did you ever hear of Naperville, Illinois? Well, did you ever hear of the school that created the fittest students in the nation? How about some of the smartest in the world?

Naperville is a town near Chicago and the subject of a fascinating experiment written about by psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey in his groundbreaking book, Spark. Most high schools in the United States have the standard physical education classes consisting of competitive sports such as football, basketball, track and field and some basic calisthenics. Some students excel at sports, others just get by and many can’t wait until the end of the period.

The gym teachers at Naperville conducted an educational experiment called Zero Hour P.E. where they scheduled time to work out before class using treadmills and other exercise equipment where you are only competing against yourself to improve. This program not only turned their 19,000 students into the fittest in the nation but also, in some categories, the smartest in the world.

Academically, Naperville High School is currently in the top 10 in the state–despite the fact that they spend less money per pupil than other high schools in their district.

The students at Naperville took the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) given around the world. The United States has done notoriously poorly on this test. Whereas in Asian countries nearly half of the students score in the top tier, only 7 percent of U.S. students hit that mark.

In Naperville, 97 percent of the 8th graders took the test. On the science section, they finished just ahead of Singapore, number one in the world. And on the math section, they were number six in the world. All this because of their innovative exercise program.

A fascinating study, but let’s take this one step further. In my almost 18 years of being a personal trainer, I have trained the span of learning men: young, old and even some Roshei Yeshiva (heads of Talmudic academies) as well. The vast majority of them experienced relief from physiological problems, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and low back pain. That was expected.

But even before any of the physical benefits became evident, about two weeks into their programs I started getting feedback like, “I can’t believe how much better I can concentrate in the Beit Medrash (study hall)!” or “I am able to stay awake and alert when learning with my late-night chavruta (study partner)!” and “I can even concentrate when I come home after a long day of learning and I still need to learn with my children!”

There is almost no brain function that exercise doesn’t affect in a positive way. Whether we are talking about mood or learning, exercise is a big part of the equation. Even in people with ADD and ADHD, exercise helps them concentrate better and learn better–particularly exercise that involves structured movement like martial arts.

Dr. Ratey states:

Exercise increases the concentration of both dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as other brain chemicals. I have always said that a dose of exercise is like taking a bit of Ritalin or Adderall. It’s similar to taking a stimulant. Second, over time, exercise helps build up the machinery to increase the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain as well as their postsynaptic receptors. Chronic exercise eventually causes growth of the system. The more fit that you are, the better the system works.

The bottom line is that there is an increased ability to absorb knowledge and to learn things, something especially near and dear to the Torah world.

If you are having difficulties learning or concentrating, there are many possible causes: lack of sleep, proper diet and hydration to name a few. But have you tried a comprehensive exercise program? Aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, running, biking or swimming might just do the trick. Add a couple of days a week of muscle-building exercises to round out your program. (Try starting with pushups and sit-ups.)

Doing this in the middle of the day provides an extra benefit: a break. Taking some time off will enable you to learn better throughout the day. Work your way up slowly and carefully with increasing intensity for maximum benefit.

Ben Zoma says, “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone” (Pirkei Avot [Ethics of our Fathers], Chapter 4, Mishna 1). So let’s learn something from Naperville. Embarking on a serious exercise program not only improves your health and well-being, but your comprehension and ability to learn as well. It certainly is a worthwhile investment for both your body and your neshama, your soul.

Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 16 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It!  He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at alan@loseit.co.il.