The Benefits of Regular Exercise on Pupils' Focus and Behaviour With Dr. Julian Reed

The Benefits of Regular Exercise on Pupils' Focus and Behaviour With Dr. Julian Reed

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We all know that being active is good for our physical health, but did you know that physical activity also positively affects brain development?

In this week's School behaviour Secrets episode, we interview Dr Julian Reed. He reveals how exercise can improve pupils' focus and engagement in their learning and how physical exertion can even reduce hyperactivity.

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Show notes / transcription

Dr. Julian Reed  0:00  

We know that that movement helps them focus. Therefore, it's essential for kids who struggle with staying on task that they move. And it can be simple movements. It doesn't have to be, oh, we got to go out there and have them you know, run a mile. It's that's not what we're saying. It could be also just letting them stand. Right put a standing desk in your classroom, allow them to walk around a little bit, as they are learning. So the evidence has shown the increase in focus. And if we can get a child to focus more, well, they're more likely going to stay on task. If they stay on task, they're more likely going to learn.

Simon Currigan  0:38  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan. And welcome to school behaviour secrets. This week, I've mostly been asking myself important questions like if getting the right size of shoe is so important. So they don't rub and hurt your feet. You know, you go into the shop and the assistant measures your foot and tells you your size eight and a half. But that's a wide eight and a half. So they have to order your size from the factory so that they're comfortable for you. And they'll be in in two weeks. If that's so important. Why would I go downstairs in the same shop our socks sold in single sizes that fit all feet between size five to 10. What is the deal with that? You know, the big questions,

Emma Shackleton  1:56  

important stuff.

Simon Currigan  1:57  

That's the voice my co host Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. Hi, Simon, as is now tradition and school behaviour secrets. I'd like to start by asking you a question go on, then what's your best strategy or tip for getting through a long, boring job that you don't really want to do something you'd been blown out putting off, but the deadlines looming? And now you just have to get through it?

Emma Shackleton  2:18  

Well, I actually work best with a bit of deadline pressure, don't you? Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Simon Currigan  2:23  

Those sort of force your hand, don't they make you take action?

Emma Shackleton  2:26  

Yeah, that's it. And I look at it like packing a suitcase. For a holiday, for example, I think any job will take as long as you've got. So a good friend of mine starts packing her suitcase days, or sometimes weeks before she goes on holiday. And in total, she'll spend a good number of hours packing that case, whereas I have a bit more of a chunk everything in the case the night before kind of girl. So if I've got one hour, it will take me one hour. Anyway, back to the question of getting through the boring job. I like the Eat That Frog approach that Brian Tracy talks about in his book of the same name. So basically, if you haven't heard about this before, eating the frog is a productivity strategy where you force yourself to do the most challenging task first, when you've got the most energy. So rather than putting it off and faffing around with smaller, easier tasks, just get to the big hard task, get it done. Get it out of the way. And then you can start your day with a great sense of achievement. And that really sets you up for the rest of the day. And then the other smaller tasks seem easier in comparison. So yeah, just Eat That Frog. Oh, yeah. And also break the task down into smaller pieces make it bite sized. There's a joke in there, I think about how do you eat an elephant?

Simon Currigan  3:48  

I don't know. How do you eat an elephant?

Emma Shackleton  3:50  

One bite at a time.

Simon Currigan  3:53  

Very poor.

Emma Shackleton  3:55  

Anyway, I bet you some of you asked me that question. Now

Simon Currigan  3:57  

I am are you giving an expansive answer anyway? Why

Emma Shackleton  3:59  

do you want to know?

Simon Currigan  4:01  

So in today's show, we'll be sharing my interview with Dr. Julian Reed, who is an expert on the impact of movement not just on health, but also on children's behaviour and focus. And he reveals what the latest research has to say about this, which if you're working with a child or a class that have issues around concentration or self regulation will make very interesting listening indeed.

Emma Shackleton  4:26  

Okay, but before you give away what that research says, I'd like to ask one quick favour from our listeners. If you're finding this podcast interesting or helpful, please take 30 seconds to give us a rating and review in your podcast app. When we get more reviews that tells the algorithm to direct more listeners in our direction, which helps the podcast to grow. And that means that we can help more teachers, more children and more parents. So now here's Simon's interview with Julian Read.

Simon Currigan  4:58  

Today I'm very X it to welcome Dr. Julian Reid to the show. Julian is a professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. His research focuses on examining the links between physical activity and cognitive function of young people. He is also the co founder of active Ed. And its product walkabout, which is a research based online tool that makes it easy to create lessons that bring key concepts to life through physical activity. Julian, welcome to the show.

Dr. Julian Reed  5:32  

Thank you so much for having me,

Simon Currigan  5:34  

I'm really looking forward to this interview, because this is a topic that we haven't covered yet on school behaviour secrets, so I'm sure our listeners are gonna get a lot from it. So over the last few decades, on both sides of the Atlantic, we've seen a significant reduction in the levels of physical activity of most children and adults for that matter, actually putting aside health issues like increasing levels of diabetes, what do you think, or what have you seen has been the impact of that change on children's schooling and academic outcomes?

Dr. Julian Reed  6:03  

Well, the sedentary behaviour of children and as you mentioned of adults is has been a problem for some time. And if you take away the physical wellness, if you will, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, we know and we feel pretty confident in the research that kids who move more tend to behave better and have greater academic performance, greater cognition, which can then lead to greater academic achievement. Part of the problem in education over the last few decades is the focus on test scores, and performance pedagogy, which has limited the amount of time for anything extra, if you will, whether it be physical activity and physical education, or art and music. The focus has been on these core areas such as math and reading and literacy, which are obviously extraordinarily important. But we know that sound body right nurtures a sound mind and a sound mind actually helps to nurture the full body as well. But we've lost sight of that. Because of that focus on test scores and only academic performance. What really happened that started to change with at least in the K 12. Space, is, you know, the childhood obesity epidemic is a relatively new phenomenon. If you look at the health that has been measured over time, childhood obesity really wasn't until the 90s, we didn't even start collecting obesity data in the United States until the 80s. So we started seeing changes, especially in first world countries like the US in the late 90s, mid 90s. And there were a host of reasons for that. Right? inactivity, but also, you can do tonnes of podcasts on just nutrition and the food that we eat. However, when you talk to school officials, they were aware of the changes in children. But at the same time, they say we had limited time to teach anything we do extra is putting additional responsibilities on the teacher. And we have limited instruction time. So researchers in this space even before I started looking into it, were saying to themselves, okay, and my wife's a classroom teacher, that we're saying, Okay, what's a way we can get more movement without losing instruction time? Now, integration is not novel integration has been happening for hundreds of years when we talk about education. But in this case, it was if kids like to move, and the first thing we do when we're born is we move or we kick our feet, move our arms. Why don't we use that as an advantage to teach basic math and elementary literacy concepts for younger children doesn't mean you can't teach it with middle and high school. It's actually even been taught in college using movement, I use movement. But that helped. Administrators say okay, so you're not losing instruction time, I already have to teach these things. And then you're able to show evidence that kids who move more are actually performing better. So it's actually helping you the principal, the administrator, the teacher, the things you're responsible for, that really changed how people who were might be apprehensive to bring movement into the classroom, now realise, hey, this can be really helpful. Kids like to move, it helps them stay on task or just counterintuitive, right? I mean, people like well, you want movement and they're going to focus more, it actually helps to stimulate a part of that prefrontal cortex of our brain that helps us focus and helps us with memory and some of those cognitive benefits that we get through movement. It sounds

Simon Currigan  9:59  

ironic that in an attempt to improve test scores and those kind of measurable academic outcomes movements being pushed out of the curriculum, when actually that was the key to unlocking better test scores, in some respects, is that the kind of?

Dr. Julian Reed  10:15  

Absolutely, absolutely, I mean, it's been in human history in the last few decades, we've engineered physical activity out of our lives, right, we've made things more and more productive, but no one would just, you know, say, hey, we don't want productivity. But the sedentary lifestyle has become a liquid, you know, I'm sitting here now I do have a standing desk and a treadmill desk and and what have you, but more and more disease is chronic, right? When you go back, you know, 100 years ago, right, early 1900s, people weren't dying from chronic disease, they were dying much more from infectious disease. But as we've had more productivity, educational levels and increase more white collar jobs, you become much more sedentary, and your body is designed to move. It's not designed to be sedentary. And we encourage our children to move when they're outside of school. But when they get in school, we ask them to, you know, sit down and be quiet. That is starting to change, we are starting to see more coordinated school physical activity where kids are moving before school after school. And they're getting some breaks, as you have alluded to, but those breaks can be more frequent. In many cases, if teachers recognise, hey, this movement is actually going to help the child not just for the movement, but help them to retain the information. So what do I mean by that? So in our platform, which we're going to talk about, we teach long and short vowel sounds, well, we have the kids reach their hands up for a long vowel sound, and squat down low for a short vowel. So well, right away, a teacher looks at that and says, Well, I get the kids who get the concept, or who don't get the concept just based on their movement. But then if it's long vowel, and you're reaching up that further puts it into a context where short vowel you're squatting down. So they're still learning beyond just moving.

Simon Currigan  12:07  

So how does that work? At the brain level? How does that physical activity affect cognition and affect memory as well? What's going on?

Dr. Julian Reed  12:15  

Yeah, so this is based on the executive function hypothesis, the executive functions are located in our prefrontal cortex, they're very important for planning, organising, goal setting, working memory, abstract thinking. And I might have said problem solving as well. So when you get more blood that goes to the brain, that blood brings a lot of different things with it beyond just oxygen, it also brings in growth factors. And those growth factors help to increase neurons help to increase our synapses, which is essential for cognition, the more neurons we have more communication release of neurotransmitters, and therefore structural changes, true structural changes happen in the brain that leads to cognition. I mean, there's researchers out there who have found that more fit, kids have a greater volume in certain areas of the brain. And they have also found, you know, more fit kids perform better on memory tasks, and other things that are essential for learning. And physiologically, we think it's that blood that growth factors as changes in the prefrontal cortex, which leads to those benefits not only on behaviour, because it helps to stimulate focus. And it also helps you to increase your cognitive awareness.

Simon Currigan  13:46  

So this might be an oversimplification, but is exercise almost like adding food to a plant to help it grow and develop?

Dr. Julian Reed  13:56  

Well? Yeah, absolutely. There's actually funny say that. So Dr. John Ratey, who's from Harvard, and he's written a best selling book back in 2008, called spark. And he calls one of the growth factors, which is called brain derived neurotrophic factor. He calls it Miracle Gro for the brain, right? So to your point, it's a growth factor that is saying, Okay, you have your brain, and then we're going to fertilise it, if you will, for lack of a better term. And so, the interesting thing about some of these growth factors is that they're regulated by exercise. We have some researchers out California, UC Irvine, who studied a lot of this early on with mice and found that the more active mice had changes in their hippocampus region of their brain, which is another important place for memory. So there is evidence there now no one should ever say well, it's 100% conclusive, but the evidence is there that the more you move, the more likely you are to have greater cognition. And we now know too, there's evidence that it will push out dementia among the elderly. I mean, this all really started in the field of Gerontology in the 1960s. And then it's kind of made its way down to different age groups. And we've had such advancements in neuroscience, most physicians are most in the health field, recognise movement is much more than it was just for the heart, we do know that brain benefits a lot from that. And now we know mental health and so much mental health and mental illness has been shown to benefit from physical activity. I mean, even in the UK, I remember watching the show, maybe it was like 10 years ago, is a lot of mild depression has been treated with physical activity. That's the same in the States, one of the things you tell someone early on, I'm not talking about moderate or severe, because those are different examples. But often mild, is Hey, before we get you on medication, let's get you on a Physical Activity Plan. And Duke University did studies you know, a long time ago to demonstrate that so

Simon Currigan  16:09  

we get our kids moving more, that increases blood flow to the brain, which helps the brain develop and increase the number of neurons and the connections. And that helps our prefrontal cortex. What concrete benefits then do we see from that change in the classroom? How does that help our kids? What changes do we see in their learning?

Dr. Julian Reed  16:28  

Well, right away to the point of the, if we break teaching down, I always talk to folks who are in the classroom who recognise if you break it down what happens in the classroom, there's two things you're teaching or you're managing now we can then scaffold both of those terms, right? And so it's much more than just say, well, there's teaching and there's managing, but if you're managing behaviour, you're not teaching. So we do know, the prefrontal cortex, by stimulating it also helps you with engagement, and focus, and helps to reduce hyperactivity, so that right away, even if we say there's no cognitive benefits, let's just let's just say, hey, focus on behaviour. Well, if you're focusing more, right, that's going to lead to most likely staying on task. And I don't know how it is where you are. But in the US one of the number one reasons teachers lead the field as behaviour management, absolutely. It's just wears on them so much, you know, these kids aren't listening to me, they're not behaving, it's, it's very hard. So you get that part? Well, if you think about thinking and problem solving, and other forms of cognition, like working memory, which has been found to improve with physical activity, those are pretty important for academic performance. So those cognitive behaviours, or cognitive enhancements, as I say, they're pretty important when you talk about learning specific concepts. So that cognition helps to improve specific academic performance based on what those areas of the brain are responsible for.

Simon Currigan  18:15  

I'm really interested in how much this supports kids with ADHD because ADHD can be considered an executive functioning disorder. Oh, it is. Absolutely. Yeah. And I'm what you're discussing is developing neurons and connections and the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that deals with executive functions, as we've already talked about. Sure, totally. So what does the research say for kids with ADHD? Well, it

Dr. Julian Reed  18:39  

says that the best thing you can do for them is get them, you know, depends on if you go to the Add society, and some of the others, they will often say, really less than 5% need medication. But let's say it's around 5%, it might be higher. I haven't checked the stats in the last year or so. But we know that for the reasons you and I just discussed, that that movement helps them focus. Therefore, it's essential for kids who struggle with staying on task that they move, right. And this is where and it can be simple movements. It doesn't have to be, oh, we got to go out there and have them you know, run a mile. It's that's not what we're saying. It could be also just letting them stand, right, put a standing desk in your classroom, allow them to walk around a little bit as they are learning if the learning, you know, supports that. So the evidence has shown the increase in focus. And if we can get a child to focus more, well, they're more likely going to stay on task. If they stay on task, they're more likely going to learn now I'm not saying that every kid who moves is suddenly going to become the most brilliant child in the classroom. We know we still have to have effective teaching, but we know this is an additional mediator that can help and why wouldn't you use something And also that we know young children like to do is they like to move. So it's kind of a win win and prove, you know, your quote unquote, physical wellness, but then it also then improves your social emotional wellness and your mental wellness as well. So even if it's, you know, five to 10 minutes, your body really responds well to those short bouts as well.

Simon Currigan  20:23  

It's a strategy that is completely free and if it's got a measurable, right, right, right, there are many of those other, you've developed a programme called walk about that helps educators implement physical activities into lessons in an easy, practical way. Can you tell us about your programme, how it works, what it looks like in the classroom?

Dr. Julian Reed  20:42  

Absolutely. So walk abouts was really an extension of some of the research I've done. And some of the books I've written in my, you know, talking to teachers, who will say, hey, you know, I have a few lessons that I can integrate movement. But after that, I pretty much you know, tapped out, I don't know what else I can do. And so as I was training teachers in the late 1990s, early 2000s, on how to teach with movement, really static, you know, paper to pencil lessons, I realised that beyond just training them, a lot of teachers were looking for like a turn key approach that they could use, that they didn't necessarily have to be creative in how to write these lessons. And so walkabouts is really an extension of that. At the same time I was doing this, I saw a lot of technology was changing, and more and more technology was coming into the classroom. And I said, well, from a scalability standpoint, there's a real opportunity here, because we've already have the pipes if you will built in and there's a board, you know, projector, what if we use that to our advantage? So walkabouts is totally web based. And it's all you know, online in the cloud, all a teacher needs to be able to do is check their email. And so if you can check your email, you can log in and get a credential. And we have a couple of characters that take kids on the seven to 10 minute adventures in which they are moving as they learn specific content. So say you're a math teacher, and you're teaching base 10. Right? Well, you go onto our platform, you log in, and you have the dashboard there and you say I'm teaching first grade, I'm teaching math, and then I'm teaching a subcategory, and I pick a lesson. And that lesson comes up and it takes the kids on an adventure, whether it's in a park, whether it's in a city, and the unique thing is that the movements that the kids are doing, tell the teacher if the kids get the concepts or not, but it also changes every time you play it. So that's part of a really unique part of our platform is although plays like a video, it changes. So say I was doing numbers base 10, I'm not going to get the same numbers, or of doing long and short vowel sounds. If I go back and play it again, I'm not going to get the same words, and I'm not going to get the same order. Because if not, then, you know, the novelty wears off. And students can memorise the answers, we do still have some paper to pencil what we call walk sheets that allow teachers to use maybe as a pre test, or maybe as a way to extend the learning after the walk about but it's really a platform where you use movement to teach the concepts you're already teaching,

Simon Currigan  23:20  

what age groups is it suitable for?

Dr. Julian Reed  23:23  

Okay, so the primary age group is elementary aged kids. And we've really focused on early childhood pre K to second and third grade. But we're building out some additional content for you know, higher grades as well. And we do have some fourth and fifth grade content. But our main focus right now is, you know, kindergarten, pre kindergarten, and then first and second grade. But we are expanding those offerings.

Simon Currigan  23:48  

So if you're listening in the UK, that EY Fs and Key Stage One with some early Key Stage two, how do our listeners if they're interested in this, how do they find out more about walkabouts?

Dr. Julian Reed  23:58  

Yeah, really set to go to walk And just put that into your browser, whether it's, you know, Google Explorer, or Firefox, and you'll come straight to our website. And you can try it out for free. I mean, we give it 30 day free trial. And this is for teachers, parents, administrators, and you know, so you can use it right away without any costs. And if you want to continue, you know, we can figure out a way for that to happen, whether you're an individual or you're thinking more as a school, so my whole design or the platform was one, make it simple to use. So like the if you can check your email, you can log in and make it truly dynamic. So it's a new experience every time whether we like it or a lot kids expect, you know, good graphics and especially the things they get on their iPhones and their iPads. So I think if you check it out, you'll see it's very engaging, and it's all based on true standards. The way we have set it up Ben is that we know where you live. And so in the US, we know what state you're in. And then it actually pulls in those specific standards from where you live. And we have some options for those internationally as well. So that also helps, because there are still some principals and administrators who are a little suspect of moving because they're like, Well, you got to teach these standards. Well, by bringing in these additional standards, we're able to a teacher is able to demonstrate to their principal, Hey, I am teaching what I'm supposed to be teaching. What I'm teaching also correlates with all these other things. So no instruction time is lost. Because that's ultimately the biggest barrier to getting more movement in school is instruction time, and I get it right. They're there to be learning. But why are we taking out something we know that's going to improve one of the performance indicators that a teacher and a principal and administrators evaluated on

Simon Currigan  25:58  

really interesting topic? What sparked your interest? How did you get into Yeah,

Dr. Julian Reed  26:02  

I was always a kid who got in trouble. So I was really really hyperactive, constantly moving. And as I was going through graduate school, I realised, you know, I did some of my best thinking when I was moving. I never really liked to sit down. And so then when I started studying this master's, and I started doing some research, I came across a great book called Why learning is not all in your head by Dr. Carla Hannaford, and she talks about a lot about the brain, of course, but she also talks about learning through space, and having the perceptual nervous system, updating the central nervous system. And then, you know, the early 2000s, I was developing these paper lessons. And then we started to shift. And then Dr. Radies book came out in 2008, which ended up being a best selling book on how and he's a psychiatrist, by the way at Harvard. So it wasn't as much the cognitive component, it was a lot more of the mental aspects. So it just really fit how you live my life. I live my life by moving. And a lot of kids are the kinesthetic learner. And those often get overlooked. Or they're labelled, hey, you have ADHD, and your your behaviour issue, which many kids might very well suffer from ADHD, but there are kids who are just labelled that way, because they need to move to learn. So that's really the impetus. You know, it started in my my youth. And then it became much more formalised as I became more educated on the topic.

Simon Currigan  27:29  

Finally, we asked this of all our guests, who is the key figure that's influenced you? Or what is the key book that you've read that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with children?

Dr. Julian Reed  27:39  

Yeah, probably be that book I just mentioned on while learning is not all in your head, by Dr. Hannaford, just because when I first started reading it, it really helped me to better understand how learning is truly multi sensory. And she talks about that. And when we move, we have proprioceptive errors that update our central nervous system on where we are in space. And that really resonated with me, for a host of reasons I'm very active in sport. And so when I first read that book, by me, you know, 30 years ago, I suspect I was thinking, even from a different lens of just how you move and how your body understands how you move. And then as you dig deeper, you realise, well, that is a form of learning. And it's just not learning in your traditional sense that we often talk about, but learning a motor skill is learning, right? I mean, you've talked about the three domains of learning, right? You have your psychomotor, your affective domain, you know, which is your social, emotional, and then your cognitive. And those three things work together. So I probably say her, but it's

Simon Currigan  28:47  

fascinating to to talk about this stuff all day to you. But unfortunately, we are out of time. It's been a pleasure having you on the podcast today. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. Julian Reed  28:56  

Oh, thank you. My pleasure. Well, I

Emma Shackleton  28:59  

think that was a really interesting interview with lots of practical takeaways that we can start to use straight away. Our bodies just aren't designed to sit behind desks for hours at a time. And if movement can improve outcomes behaviorally, and academically for kids, and it's got no cost. This is surely something we should definitely be looking at incorporating more of into our lessons. Yeah, absolutely.

Simon Currigan  29:24  

And I'll drop direct links to Julian's website in the show notes.

Emma Shackleton  29:29  

And by the way, if you're working with children who find it difficult to regulate their emotions, we've got a free download that can help. It's called How to help children manage anger and other strong emotions.

Simon Currigan  29:42  

title sounds obscure Emma, tell me about what it's about.

Emma Shackleton  29:46  

Ah, it basically does what it says on the tin. The guide takes you through a proven approach to teaching regulation techniques to school aged children. So it even gives you resources to print out in use, we to your students. All you need to do to get your guide is visit UK and click on the free resources section near the top of the page. Remember, you're looking for how to help children manage anger and other strong emotions

Simon Currigan  30:16  

perfect and we'll also put a direct link to that resource in the show notes as well. And if you've enjoyed today's episode and you haven't subscribed yet, then what are you waiting for? Open up your podcast app now. While the show is still playing, and hit the subscribe button then your app will automatically download each and every episode as it's released so you never miss a thing and to celebrate subscribing. Well, why not push a globule of coconut fat deep into your belly button. The coconut will make your tummy RFS smell like a tropical paradise. And as it melts the oil will gently moisturise the remains of umbilical cord that must surely still be nestling inside your inner belly button hanging around since your birth all those years ago. Just beautiful.

Emma Shackleton  31:01  

I'm not sure I'd recommend that but I definitely do recommend subscribing. I hope you all have a brilliant week and we look forward to seeing

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)