Learning to run, running to learn

I recently completed a 50km ultramarathon in Australia’s stunning Blue Mountains. With 2400 metres of ascent and descent and over 8130 stairs on the course, it was no easy feat!

I was thrilled with my effort and even more proud of myself for beating last year’s time by almost 1.5 hours. The immediate payoff for all the months of training in all types of weather conditions, suffering through blisters and stomach issues and making other sacrifices along the way (giving up alcohol for example), are that I now have a very attractive medal to show around AND I have full rights to refer to myself as an ultramarathon runner whenever the opportunity arises (or whenever I help the opportunity arise ?). As I am coming to realise however, the long-term benefits of my running are much greater, and the more I run, the more I’m becoming convinced of the inextricable relationship between my two passions of education and exercise.

Exercise, learning and the brain

Participation in rigorous exercise improves alertness, attention, and motivation in learning (Mahar et al., 2006; Ratey and Hagerman, 2013; Winter et al., 2007).

I know myself when I’m passive all day I start to lose focus and am not as effective as I should be. My concentration starts to wane, and my decision making may not be as sharp as it should be (not good when you are supposed to be the person responsible for running a school!)

The sluggish, unproductive feeling I get when I am inactive for too long is one of the main reasons I purchased a stand-up desk when I first became a principal and why I could never work without one now. It is also the reason I have always included physical brain breaks whenever I am teaching (this is something I continue to include in my professional learning sessions for adults today).

In addition to improving attention, a German study illustrated the positive impact of exercise on cognition and memory, demonstrating that vocabulary learning occurred 20 percent faster after participants had engaged in rigorous exercise (Winter et al., 2007). Some research goes as far as linking participation in acute exercise with improvements on academic achievement tests in reading and maths as well (Hillman et al., 2009; Castelli et al., 2007). Interesting, considering many schools have found themselves forgoing time spent on physical activity in the pursuit of better academic achievement for students.

Exercise, learning and ADHD

The research on the impact of exercise and learning for students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) is even more positive, with studies showing that exercise programmes reduce ADHD symptoms and produced better long-term outcomes for these children (Berwid and Halperin, 2012). Aerobic exercise can improve anxiety, executive functioning and impulsivity for students with ADHD, which can lead to an improvement in cognitive functioning and social skills (Cerrillo-Urbina et al., 2015).

I have to say, these research findings don’t come as a surprise to me, as it has always seemed as though many of the students with ADHD I have worked with have ‘extra energy to burn’ and I’ve always instinctively leant towards engaging them in physical activity (such as running laps of the oval) as a break from their work to help them remain engaged. Interestingly, all the Occupational Therapists of the students with really challenging behaviours I have worked with, have always suggested these students engage in heavy lifting and other strenuous physical activity immediately before class and several times throughout the day, in order to keep them engaged in learning.

When it comes to impulsivity and executive functioning, the Rock and Water (Ykema, 2002) program teaches educators about the increase in testosterone levels in boys as they grow up and why it is important to keep them moving in school: “When we force boys to sit still (too long), we suppress their impulse to move. An energy bomb in your body is an irrational thing. If we do not teach boys to handle it, but-on the contrary- try to suppress it, this bomb will explode (always at the wrong moment) and…boys will do irrational things.” Hmmmm…sound familiar?

 “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.” – Plato

There is no denying it, our bodies are designed to move!

We may not all be ultramarathon runners, (like myself ?) but we need to remember that exercise and physical activity are a very important part of the equation when it comes to effective teaching and learning. And, considering a recent Grattan Institute report suggests that many Australian students are ‘consistently disengaged in class’ and that ‘as many as 40 per cent are unproductive in a given year,’ now might be a good time to start heeding the advice of the research around exercise, learning and the brain.

Note: I didn’t get a chance to mention the numerous mental health benefits of exercise in this post- I will have to write about that another day…

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  • Berwid, O. and Halperin, J. (2012). Emerging Support for a Role of Exercise in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Intervention Planning. Current Psychiatry Reports, 14(5), pp.543-551.
  • Castelli, D., Hillman, C., Buck, S. and Erwin, H. (2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in 3rd and 5th grade students. Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, pp.239-252.
  • Cerrillo-Urbina, A., García-Hermoso, A., Sánchez-López, M., Pardo-Guijarro, M., Santos Gómez, J. and Martínez-Vizcaíno, V. (2015). The effects of physical exercise in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials. Child: Care, Health and Development, 41(6), pp.779-788.
  • Hillman, C., Pontifex, M., Raine, L., Castelli, D., Hall, E. and Kramer, A. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience, 159(3), pp.1044-1054.
  • Mahar, M., Murphy, S., Rowe, D., Golden, J., Shields, T. and Raedeke, T. (2006). Effects of a Classroom-Based Physical Activity Program on Physical Activity and on On-Task Behavior in Elementary School Children. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(Supplement), p.S80.
  • Ratey, J. and Hagerman, E. (2013). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown.
  • Ykema, F. (2002). Rock and water perspectives. Greenwood, W.A.: Gadaku Institute, p.25.
  • Winter, B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F., Voelker, K., Fobker, M., Lechtermann, A., Krueger, K., Fromme, A., Korsukewitz, C., Floel, A. and Knecht, S. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 87(4), pp.597-609.
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