Students work out before class. Click to view PBS report on fitness and learning.

“It’s all about the heart rate.” Paul Zientarski, who has recreated PE at Naperville (IL) Central High School, tells us this: and when student heart rates go up in the hour before they sit down in class, their grades will follow.

In addition to the brushfire of school nutrition initiatives emerging in schools all over the country, we are seeing the connection between physical fitness and cognitive fitness put in place at the other end of the building.

Paul Zientarski

The PBS program “Need to Know” focuses on the work Zientarski is doing in Naperville, and the research John Ratey MD is doing at Harvard that points increasingly to the importance of physical education and fitness in general on the optimal function of the brain.    For Zientarski, the results are showing up in the academic performance of students who participate in specific exercises in the morning before class.

John A. Ratey, MD

Ratey, the author of the book “Spark,” has reported research that showed morbidly obese teens can have IQs as much as 30 points lower than their peers.   He also notes that “fitness-based exercise programs” are definitely not “gym.”  The new understanding of the effect of fitness on cognition is just beginning to be applied in school settings like Napierville.

These school days there is so little availability of phys ed in schools — only 2% of high schools provide daily physical education — that the advance of illnesses arising from being overweight and out of shape are becoming too predictable and in the case of the US Army, limiting the number of candidates able even to go into basic training.