John Ratey changed public understanding of sports and movement. In his bestselling book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, he identifies that exercise is not only a tool for fitness, but a primary lever in our cognitive capacities.
Exercise can spark creativity and increase mood, focus, and wakefulness. Movement matters.
In the midst of a quarantine, in this COVID moment, we have stopped moving. This is especially important to recognize in student-athletes, who have been upended from their mobile routines and forced into the sedentary nature of remote learning.
Our athletes have gone from running and jumping and lifting to… sitting.
This comes with a serious risk of exacerbated mental health concerns. In addition to the hopelessness and isolation of the moment, sedentary behavior poses a very risk.
The danger of sedentary behavior will not take long to take hold.
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 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.
Hope is not lost, but to avoid the pitfalls of quarantine, we have to act fast! Teachers, coaches, and leaders of all kinds should consider the following steps.
Students must bring structure into their lives if they stand any chance at regulating their minds and behaviors. Exercise has the power to not only enhance a mindset (if only by getting in front of mental health concerns), but provide a fantastic opportunity to be the cornerstone of that much-needed structure.
How to add this to a young person’s day will have to begin with thoughtful communication.
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 getting sufficient sleep quantity (many approaching 9-10 hours/night) during quarantine, but consistent sleep schedules were becoming increasingly difficult – likely associated with the increase in sedentary behavior. The data on irregular sleep aligned with decreasing motivation for exercise. A continued version of this degraded cycle will quickly dis-regulate a young person – any person – and complicate the situation even further.
Start by opening up a conversation. Students must be directly communicated with to identify the new motivations of this moment, and identify where they need support. The methods of the past are in the past. Investigate what they want and need, then work alongside them to keep – or reincorporate – exercise into their lives.
Communicate with parents. The home environment – healthy or unhealthy – will either enhance or 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 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 school administration. Educators everywhere are doing their best, but are concerned that valuable time will be lost. That is an understandable concern. Curricula will certainly have to be pared down. With this in mind, teachers’ goals and outcomes will have to change. The administration should recognize that 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, but do it tactfully – do not tell a school administration what to do, share and inquire about an evolving version of best practice. There is not likely to be an existing policy on this, they will appreciate your feedback.
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.
Educators, 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. Meet people where they are in order to motivate them to get up and move.
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