Physical activity programs making a difference in learning

04/11/2014  |  By Debby Mitchell Ed.D.

(This is part two of a three-part series about activating the brain and body through increased physical activity in our school systems.)

In the last issue of SEEN we discussed the lack of physical activity with an overemphasis on standardized testing in U.S. schools today. 

The reduction (and in some cases, elimination) of physical education in our schools has not only contributed to obesity and related diseases, but has adversely affected our children’s brain health. By increasing physical activity in our schools, we can combat obesity, regain student concentration, and possibly even increase academic success.

Programs Making a Difference
Many educators and community leaders have recognized that they can improve learning and therefore test scores, by including physical activity into children’s daily lives. Math or literacy coaches, classroom teachers with multi-sensory lessons, physical education, health education and other educators providing staff development for teachers, after school programs, and hospitals are following the research and making a difference.

This article will share a variety of successful programs as examples of “Moving to Improve” by integrating physical activity into the daily lives of children.

Math/Science Coach in Elementary School
As a school leader, Mary Lynn Hess has been a driving force in implementing a culture of wellness for the students at Goldsboro Elementary Magnet School in Sanford, Fla., where she continually strives to seek new opportunities that weave together academics and wellness. Working as a lab resource teacher in math and science for kindergarten through fifth grade students, she has implemented a variety of programs that are focused around physical activity which include daily brain movement breaks, a 750 square foot garden on the campus, a morning Fitness Club, using a blender bike to make smoothies, “Movement Measurement Olympics,” and academics that are centered around moving your body.

Her school goal of achieving well-rounded students means academic successes and physical well being are equally important. Not only does she include physical activity as part of the school day, but it is also evident that students pay attention better in class and mentally come better prepared to learn. One parent commented, “We have found that our son makes better choices on the days he attends Fitness Club. This helps him begin his day on a positive note!” Physical activity is definitely a recipe for success at Goldsboro Elementary Magnet School.

Classroom Teacher Integration
Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) are embracing and increasing physical activity in the classrooms in schools across the district. IPS have opened one magnet school called SUPER School. Their goal is to provide every child in grades K-8, 60 minutes of daily physical education.

To integrate academics, the SUPER School and other schools are using GeoMotion TV and integrating brain breaks throughout the core day. By using physical activity in the learning process, students are retaining and retrieving academics more efficiently, have more energy, and are focused throughout the day.

A pilot study was conducted on four controlled classrooms using fitness balls as chairs, including brain breaks throughout the day, and integrating movement into the curriculum for a semester. Results were positive, showing higher results in the classrooms that integrated movement than the uncontrolled classes in the same building.

The following are some quotes from students and teachers after implementing GeoMotion TV and Brain Breaks in classrooms:

  • “My teacher is making school fun. That’s just another reason to be here every day.” – 6th grade student
  • “My students can’t wait for me to put the TV on and get up and move and learn.” – 1st grade teacher
  • “My students are one month ahead of where we were last year at this time and the only difference is movement throughout the day!” – 1st grade teacher
  • “I love being able to learn while I am moving!” – student

High School Physical Education
Naperville Central High School in the Chicago suburbs is highlighted on “Need to Know” on PBS. They report about the innovative program where PE is a daily graded requirement. For some students who are struggling academically, they schedule PE right before their most difficult class. In the six years since the program began, they are having great success with increased English, math, and standardized test scores.

Visit for more information.

Naperville’s new PE fitness model is also a focus of Dr. John Ratey, an Associate Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School. He discusses the strengths of daily physical activity in Naperville in his book, “Spark” and on his web site, stating:

“There are 52 million children from kindergarten through 12th grade who attend public and private schools in the United States. If all of them had the benefit of Naperville-style physical education our next generation of adults would be healthier, happier, and smarter.”

For additional information, visit

Staff Development
“Be Fit 2 Learn” was created by educators Dr. Ann Goldade and Lois Mauch through careful examination of research regarding connections between physical activity, brain development and academic success. Their mission is to improve academic achievement through physical activity for all children. “Be Fit 2 Learn” offers a two-day, face-to-face workshop that has been highly effective for teachers.

“Be Fit 2 Learn” has had the opportunity to offer workshops and presentations across the country. One example was in Clinton, S.C. where they conducted the workshop with 30 special education and physical education teachers. The participants were provided with 20 active content strategies and given the opportunity to collaborate and put these strategies into immediate practice in their classrooms.

Feedback from this workshop included the following comments:

  • “This workshop was a blast and it has helped me understand more about my students’ total body/mind connections and needs;” “A must for all educators!” – Jacqueline
  • “My goal is to integrate movement into learning, to increase student retention, and to increase personal health for students and myself!” – Lisa
  • “This workshop has had an amazing impact in a short amount of time!” – Teri

For more information, visit

Hospital, Community and National Leadership
In response to the declining health and physical fitness of America’s youth, the National Dairy Council (NDC) and the National Football League (NFL) launched a unique in-school nutrition and physical activity program called “Fuel Up to Play 60.” Examples of their reach in Florida include over 3,100 enrolled schools serving 2.5 million students, incentives for program activation on campus and the opportunity for qualifying Florida K-12 schools to apply for up to $4,000 in grant funding for wellness projects. Sponsored by the Dairy Council of Florida, the “Fuel Up to Play 60” program empowers students to lead the change and supports efforts such as increasing school breakfast participation, growing school gardens and providing equipment for in-class physical activity breaks. Check with your local dairy council or visit to see what resources are available in your state.

Nemours, a children’s health system with hospitals and subspecialty care clinics in Delaware and Florida, is working with partners across the country. Some of their initiatives include, “Let’s Move! Child Care” and the “National Early Care and Education Collaborative” is a joint effort of CDC, Nemours, and Healthy Way to Grow (a partnership between the American Heart Association and Nemours). These efforts help child care providers make changes in nutrition, provide breastfeeding support, physical activity, and screen time policies and practices and are essential to ensuring that our nation’s youngest children continue to live, learn, and play in environments that support their health. In central Florida, the Nemours Florida Prevention Initiative (FPI) works with child care sites to embed physical activity in their programs by providing educational resources and training, as well as through developing wellness policies. FPI Director, Lloyd N. Werk, MD, MPH, reports, “The best way to help children learn how to make healthy choices in later life is to practice them early. Integrating physical activity and moving throughout the day helps to lay down lifelong habits as well as enhances the learning environment.”

As part of a grant from the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, Bon Secours provided funding and support to integrate physical activity and learning integration tools into 115 elementary schools. For example, children are directed by their teacher to jump to the correct number on their mats in one lesson called “Surf and Multiply by 7.” Children jump, clap, sing, and have fun all while learning academic content. Charlotte Perkins, chief performance management office for Bon Secours Virginia Health System and chief architect of movin’ mania stated that the program was a community wide effort and commitment to building a healthier generation. They were honored to provide teachers with a tool to help them incorporate movement into their regular academic day.

There are many successful programs and those shared are just a few that are making a difference in children’s health and learning. The research to support the integration of physical activity and learning is significant.

Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical, and author of Spark states, “What makes you move also helps you think!” Another researcher, Dr. John Medina (Brain Rules, 2008) states, “to improve your thinking skills, move! Our brains need regular movement for learning and attention. Humankind’s unique cognitive skills were forged in the furnace of physical activity.”

So, for optimal brain functioning, let’s keep our children moving and learning!




Debby Mitchell, Ed.D. is a retired associate professor from University of Central Florida and President of GeoMotion Group, Inc. For more information, visit
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