In 2014, pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom set out to better understand the student experience by sitting in on middle school classes. She sat. She sat some more. She then noticed that a day’s worth of sitting was affecting her ability to focus. She asked “how on Earth do these children tolerate sitting this long?” before spotting all the fidgety, distracted bodies – “well, the short answer is they don’t.”
This phenomenon is rooted in the commonly ignored factor that students are embodied. Those delicate brains we hope to educate are carried around in living, breathing vessels. Those bodies are built to move, but our young people are simply… not. Not enough, at least.
Hanscom’s experience is not unique. Fewer than 1 in 5 students are getting the recommended amount of exercise. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic and students were ushered into the slog of remote learning. It is only getting worse.
Mark Mattson, an adjunct professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, asserts that this sort of lifestyle “betrays the evolutionary history encoded in our genes” (Mattson, p.347). The counter-evolutionary construct of sedentary school days has the potential to make students bored, unfocused, and unhealthy, while contributing to a variety of psychological disorders, including anxiety.
When sedentary behavior is experimentally induced in an otherwise active population, researchers at the University of Mississippi identified an increase in anxiety. Additional studies have found a similar alignment with sedentary behavior and depression.
In Kelly McGonagal’s recent book “The Joy of Movement” she cites one of those studies to highlight that “within one week of becoming more sedentary [study participants] report a 31 percent decline in life satisfaction,” (p. 14). The danger of sedentary behavior will not take long to take hold.
Work to be Done
Some schools have made valiant attempts to incorporate exercise-based strategies, but the work has just begun. Educators who understand this concern are attempting to create active classroom environments. They know that if we use our bodies in the manner in which they were built, studies have shown that exercise can improve memory, attention, and executive control.
There is good work being done out there. Or at least there was…
Those creative classroom environments are over, for the time being. During the remote-learning days of the COVID-19 pandemic, our students are more sedentary than ever before. They have, in a sense, brought their work home with them – or at least their working style.
The difference is, they no longer need to walk the halls and climb stairs to get to their next class. They might adjust their position in their chair before clicking to join the next Zoom meeting.
Sedentary students might not seem like a terrible concern when compared to the thousands of people battling the symptoms of the virus, but we should take care to look closely – these students are at a greater risk of mental health concerns. The CDC takes that concern seriously. The hopelessness, isolation, and sedentary behavior of remote learning combine to pose a very real public health risk.
In addition to mental health concerns, we should also be aware of the longitudinal risk of premature cognitive decline. Should this become their new normal, they will also find themselves at a greater risk of obesity, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. Truly, we are dealing with a public health dilemma.
Whether it is to improve learning and mental health outcomes or to prevent complicated longitudinal health concerns, it is clear that we need to create remote systems that encourage our young people to stay moving.
Communicate with parents.
The home environment will either enhance or further challenge a student’s wellness. Reach out to parents and ask them to articulate what they want for their children during this time, then provide them with resources to understand why and how they can and should build a healthy, active culture at home. Keep in mind that this is a difficult time for parents as well. Perhaps the entire family would benefit from some additional exercise if only to de-stress!
Communicate with the school administration.
Educators everywhere are doing their best, though many seem concerned that valuable teaching time has been lost. Curricula will certainly have to be pared down. Goals and outcomes will have to change. It is not advisable to keep students in Zoom meetings and on Canvas for 8 hours per day. Address your concerns with department coordinators and school administration. There is not likely to be an existing policy on this, they will appreciate your feedback.
Communicate with students.
Ask them where they need support. In a recent survey of High School students (n=129) conducted by the Good Athlete Project, we found that most are now getting sufficient sleep quantity (many approaching 9-10 hours/night), but consistent sleep schedules are increasingly difficult. One student, after admitting that she was going to bed at 4:00 am and waking up at 2:00 pm simply said, “and why not?” Going to bed at 4:00 am is not concern many teachers would have assumed. Educators must reach out to students and identify where they need support now. The methods of the past are in the past.
Communicate with your school’s Physical Education department.
If there are experts in movement and health on campus, use them as a resource. Many schools have experienced instructors who are already using remote training platforms like TrainHeroic to distribute workouts (and motivation) from afar. Instructors and coaches are also using Google drives, social media, and YouTube to deliver at-home exercise instruction to students. Creativity and initiative have never been more necessary.
This new undertaking will not be easy. That’s okay. This will not be perfect – nothing, in this strange moment, would fit our old standards of perfect. We should still do everything we can to make the most of this moment in time. Take the first step. Then another. Motivate students to get up and move. From there we might address nutrition and sleep. We might teach stress-management strategies. As always, if we can share the habits of health and wellness, then we are truly teaching lessons for a lifetime.
References & Further Reading
Mattson, Mark P., (2012). Evolutionary Aspects of Human Exercise – Born to Run Purposefully. Ageing Research Review, 11(3), 347-352.
How Exercise Effects Your Brain; Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-exercise-affects-your-brain/
Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking; Harvard Medical School: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
Organic Fitness: Physical Activity Consistent with our Hunter-Gatherer Heritage; The Physician and Sports Medicine: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3810/psm.2010.12.1820
Prevalence of US Youth (12-17 Years) Meeting Recommended Levels of Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity: NHANES; American Heart Association: https://healthmetrics.heart.org/prevalence-of-us-youth-12-17-years-meeting-recommended-levels-of-moderate-to-vigorous-physical-activity-nhanes/
Good Athlete Podcast, Episode 87 with John Ratey: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/good-athlete-project/good-athlete-podcast/e/66562976
Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases; Comprehensive Physiology: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242018403_Lack_of_Exercise_Is_a_Major_Cause_of_Chronic_Diseases
About Jim Davis
Jim Davis is the Director of the Good Athlete Project and a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. Jim is a former professional football player, current coach, and nationally renowned speaker. Jim’s written work has appeared in the Harvard Crimson, the Psychologist (British Psychological Association), and World of Psychology, among other locations. To schedule a team workshop or professional consult, find Jim at goodathleteproject.com