Brain Matters

In Loco Personal Trainer

Exercise improves cognition, so it's time for colleges to require physical education throughout a student's undergraduate experience, writes Karen Costa.

July 12, 2016

When it comes to how the brain works -- and what we in higher education should know about it -- a fundamental finding is that exercise improves cognition. In fact, that is the first rule that John Medina, the founder of two brain research institutes, cites in the best-selling book Brain Rules. Thus, while we largely accept that in loco parentis has long been out of vogue at colleges and universities, the vital importance of exercise to healthy brain function asks the question whether institutions should more fully adopt the role of in loco personal trainer.

“Physical education is like cognitive candy,” Medina states. When we move, and especially when we move with vigor, blood and oxygen flood the body, including the brain. Like a high tide beating away at the dunes, new pathways are formed where there were none. When we sit, and especially when we live primarily sedentary lives, our blood and oxygen are less like an ocean and more like a stew.

The fact that exercise improves cognition is not correlative; it’s causative. We can begin here, or better put, perhaps we can begin again. The sad fact is that, while exercise improves cognition, physical education requirements at colleges and universities are vanishing.

In a recent article discussing a new requirement at Oral Roberts University that mandates students wear fitness trackers, Michael Addady set the context for ORU’s bold move: “As of 2010, only 39 percent of colleges mandate physical education, down from 97 percent in the 1920s.” ORU is ironically modern in its return to the past, additionally so through their use of wearable technology to implement this requirement.

In the face of copious evidence that exercise makes our brains work better, and working within the underlying and obvious assumption that brains are a crucial factor in student learning, what conclusions could we draw from higher education’s move (with the exception of some institutions like ORU) to distance itself from physical education? Is it because …

  • Higher education doesn’t care about student learning?
  • Higher education is drowning in a morass born of a hyper focus on career readiness?
  • Higher education has become pathologically avoidant of credit creep, and the symptoms (removal of so-called nonessential courses like physical education) are now as bad as the disease?
  • Higher education believes physical education is important to student learning but disagrees that college requirements are the best mechanism to provide this instruction?

As I promised in a previous essay, the brain will leave you with more questions than answers. Which of those conclusions are valid on your campus, if any? It is with these possibilities in mind that you can begin a conversation about brain rule No. 1 at your own institution. Start by asking: Does my institution require physical education courses? If not, why not?

To further aid you in hosting or participating in this conversation, I offer you the following talking points:

Optional vs. Mandatory. Kay McClenney, senior adviser to the American Association of Community Colleges, coined the now oft-repeated phrase, “Students don’t do optional.” If we believe that something matters to the success of our students, isn’t it our responsibility to mandate it? Colleges and universities have already applied this philosophy to orientations, first-year-experience courses and placing stronger limits on late registration. If we know that exercise makes our students more mentally agile, it’s time to re-embrace our role of in loco personal trainer by requiring physical education throughout a student’s undergraduate experience.

Online Students. We now know that our shift to what James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and the inventor of the treadmill desk, calls a “chair-sentenced” society has dangerous repercussions for our health and well-being. Brick and mortar undergraduates must at least make the journey from their residence halls or apartments to reach their classrooms. Some element of physical activity, however small, is an inherent requirement of land-based college attendance. But what about our growing numbers of online students?

Creative solutions to teaching physical education to online students are needed. At the very least, could general instruction on the value of exercise be included in required orientations and first-year-experience courses? Could faculty members and advisers receive training on the connection between exercise and improved cognition? The good news in this regard is that we in higher education have virtually nowhere to go but up, with so little current discussion of physical education for online students.

Ecosystem Pressure. Four-year and two-year colleges are growing more interconnected. Most of us can’t scan the local paper or trade publications without stumbling on today’s newest transfer or articulation agreement. Few would question the value of seamless transfer for our students, particularly our community-college population, but what happens when a baccalaureate-granting institution removes all traces of physical education from its requirements? Whether intentionally or not, they release significant pressure onto their feeder schools to do the same.

In the face of high student attrition rates at community colleges, that makes transfer agreements a moral decision as well as a logistical one. Exercise improves cognition. Institutions that serve our new-traditional population (first-generation learners, students who work full-time, students who are also parents, students of color) cannot afford to disregard science that can potentially increase student persistence. Four-year schools can and should take the broader view on any decisions about requiring physical education courses in order to support student success at their feeder schools. At the very least, if they choose to remove that requirement for native (nontransfer) students, they should be open to flexible policies that allow incoming community college transfer students to apply those courses as electives.

Mental Health. It is no secret to anyone working in higher education that the mental health of our students is a growing concern. Again, this challenge is particularly pronounced in the community college population. Of even greater concern is how little we know about the mental health of online students.

What we do know is this: exercise is a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety. According to Medina, “Exercise is beneficial immediately and over the long term.” A recent study discussed in The New York Times found that a combination of running and meditation decreased symptoms by as much as 40 percent in participants suffering from depression. How many students on your campus could be retained if they were given more opportunities to practice emotional self-care in the form of exercise?

It’s on the Syllabus. One could happily waste hours of her life exploring the lively commentary on Twitter around professors’ use of the phrase “It’s on the syllabus” to respond to students’ most common course questions. It’s a refrain heard from beleaguered educators, particularly near the end of each term. Do students increasingly lack the ability to problem solve their way over the simplest roadblocks?

One of the most interesting of Medina’s findings is that sedentary people appear to have a particularly profound deficit in what he calls “fluid intelligence,” or the ability to think on one’s feet. If we want to teach our students to solve problems, complaining about it on Twitter is entertaining, but teaching our students to exercise might be tremendously more effective.

Medina’s recommendations to put brain rule No. 1 in his book into action include twice-daily recess for school-age children and integrating treadmills into schools and workplaces. Colleges that take brain-based teaching and learning seriously will move in a similar direction, making sure to bring the benefits of exercise to the students who need it the most.


Karen Costa is a Massachusetts-based adjunct instructor who teaches college success strategies to online students. Connect with her on Twitter @KarenRayCosta.


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