Enhancing Learning With Physical Activity

Written by: Ashley Green (cehdcomm@tamu.edu)
Post date: December 07, 2015

In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that nearly 25% of the U.S. adult population was completely sedentary.  For faculty in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, that number is concerning.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t hear or read about the continued increase in the occurrence of obesity, diabetes, various cancers, heart diseases and stress-related illnesses,” said Frank Thomas, associate department head and chair of the Physical Education Activity Program (PEAP).  “What is disconcerting is that there is ample scientific evidence available that shows categorically that a well-rounded, consistent exercise program can significantly offset many, if not all of these conditions.”

Physical activity not only impacts health and wellness, it also impacts one’s ability to retain information.  Physical activity helps the brain to release hormones that enhance the brain’s ability to remember information.

Considerable research has been done regarding the impact of physical activity on learning.  Dr. Susan Wagner, professor of kinesiology, ran freshman learning classes based on “Spark”, a book about the exploration of the connection between exercise and the brain’s performance, showing how exercise can supercharge mental circuits to beat stress, sharpen thinking and enhance memory.  “We tried to help them learn to study better by being physically active and show them ways to be active that would enhance their ability to learn.”

Physical education classes are no longer part of the core curriculum at Texas A&M, but Dr. Wagner points to research showing why students should still want that activity.  When the Department of Health and Kinesiology was trying to protect the two-hour requirement, the department chair did a research study comparing attendance at the rec center and GPAs.  “There was a positive correlation between the two,” said Dr. Wagner.  “More participation at the rec center showed higher GPAs.”  Other studies in the state have shown children that perform better in a fitness test also perform better on standardized tests.

Hoping to make a change nationwide, many communities are developing effective programs to increase physical activity in a variety of settings, such as neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.  The challenge is that we are living in a highly technological society that makes it convenient to remain sedentary.  According to the CDC, the key is providing a range of extracurricular programs to meet the needs and interests of all age groups.

Dr. Wagner agrees.  “What we see is if they just focus on one sport, by the time they are finished, they are either so tired of it or hurt and it sets them up for failure in adulthood.  I think the more variety a child has in their choices of physical activity as they go through elementary, middle and high school, the better off they’re going to be.”

Lifetime Fitness

That also rings true for college students, no matter their age.  Faculty in PEAP are constantly encouraging students to try something new and something they can learn for lifetime fitness.

That is exactly what Charis Tate Cranford did.  At age 50, she is preparing to graduate after tackling 12 physical education classes and will be honored with an award recognizing an outstanding undergraduate student who has epitomized the PEAP philosophy.

“She is an example that we tout to other students,” said Melinda Grant, associate chair of PEAP.  “She has played the system in terms of utilizing this as an opportunity to learn new things, to be able to build a workout into her program and to take care of her health and wellness.”

Cranford started at Texas A&M in 1983.  Three weeks into her first semester she met a man that would later become her husband.  She quit school in her sophomore year, got married and started a family.  After a divorce and losing her parents, Cranford decided it was time to get her life back on track.  She moved to College Station where three of her other children were already students at Texas A&M.

Cranford, a psychology major, knew going to college at her age was not going to be easy.  Her biggest concern was the physical education requirement.  “I knew I had to take a P.E.  I had failed tennis my freshman year here.  So I came back at 48 thinking there was no way I could do this.”

Her first class was aerobic walking with Frank Thomas, associate department head and chair of PEAP.  Cranford says it was his encouragement that got her through the class and convinced her to sign up for another.  That trend continued for three years.

“It’s definitely been an empowering experience.  I came back very insecure, very unsure of myself and very unsure of what I could do.  After taking these classes, I have more confidence.  I accomplished what I didn’t think I could accomplish.”

Cranford has a piece of advice for students who may choose not to take a P.E. class since it is not part of the core curriculum.  “If you want to do better in your classes, work your stress off and you’ll have better grades.  You’ll have fun.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll make new friends.  You’ll find people to go do stuff with and your life won’t be all about studying.”