High school explores exercise, brain power

By Megan McNamara

Imagine a high school gym class in which you could really let loose, complete with Capture the Flag and scooter games. Now imagine that these games actually helped improve your focus and reading comprehension throughout the school day.

For some students at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Ill., this dream has become a reality.

“I was in zero-hour P.E. class last year before school from 7:00 to 7:30,” said Krissy Gedutis, sophomore at Naperville Central. “Getting up that early was a pain, but it kept me a lot more awake all day. I’m much more tired in my first period class this year than I was last year.”

Gedutis participated in the Learning-Readiness Physical Education program, or LRPE.

“We’re exploring the effect that exercise has on reading scores and brain function,” said Neil Duncan, physical education teacher at Naperville Central. “Originally, there were a couple people out East that had success with this program, but at the elementary level. Our niche is the high school level.”

This is the second year that Naperville Central’s physical education department is running the program with the help of Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, in which students in a lower-level reading group are put in a gym class that incorporates strategies thought to help improve reading and comprehension. So far, they’re seeing results.

“Their reading teachers noticed changes in the kids that participated in the exercise program within the first two weeks (of last year),” Duncan said. “They were driving group discussions, had a lot of confidence, were more alert, focused, asked lots of questions, and their comprehension improved.”

Gedutis saw results as well from both herself and peers.

“I actually got on the honor roll last year, which might have had something to do with LRPE. It helped me stay focused,” she offered. “We did vocab workout on Mondays and that really helped my understanding. I think I got A’s on like all my vocabulary tests.”

The vocab workouts are a mind-body exercise used in the gym class in which students pair up and choose a vocab word from a pile. One student hops on a scooter while another gets behind and pushes him as quickly as he can to the other side of the gym, where they try to match the word to its definition. They then put the word and its definition into a pile, which the teachers look through afterwards to determine if they were matched correctly. These are the same vocab words students are tested on in their reading classes, and according to Krissy, it helps a lot.

“If they made a mistake on the word, we help them learn from it,” Duncan announced. “We usually have a time limit on it; we encourage them to set a goal and meet that goal.”

The gym class also does coordination activities, moving the body from left to right or working on improving core strength and stability, which is directly related to neurological function, Duncan said.

Students found that the gym workouts have especially impacted their concentration and alertness in the class immediately following the program.

“Though only freshmen participate in LRPE, we’ve seen that in their sophomore and junior year, they design their schedule so that they’re taking their hardest classes right after PE.