13th Sep 2015

Fitness for Teachers




Teaching is a demanding profession and anyone who says otherwise has never been a teacher. Teachers need to be physically fit to build the necessary energy reserves required for daily teaching. I don’t mean fit to run a marathon but fit in the sense to deliver what young people require and that is an energetic role model who is totally present for students. A fit teacher is better equipped to handle the stresses of teaching than an unfit teacher. Without regular exercise the heart’s ability to work efficiently drops by nearly 30% between the ages of 30 and 70 and much faster after 70. The teaching population in Australia is aging with the biggest age group being in the 50’s. Neuroscience is uncovering remarkable findings every day that the teaching profession can’t ignore. It is well documented that two of the greatest discoveries in neuroscience relating to teaching are neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Both are stimulated by exercise and learning. There are other aspects responsible for the production of new brain cells but the learning process is what builds new connections and dendrites and it’s exercise that keeps those new connections healthy.


There are still those who believe that thinking is thinking and it has nothing to do with movement. In fact I am often amazed that some schools (and even some parents) put restrictions on sport and other physical activity to focus more on learning. Scientific evidence proves there are strong links between exercise, movement, brain breaks, recess, energisers and cognition. Neuroscience proves that exercise is an effective cognitive strategy to strengthen learning, improve memory, retrieval and enhance motivation. (Jensen) If teachers are teaching with the brain in mind then exercise and regular movement must be a part of the daily learning routine. Exercise helps us learn but it is after the exercise that the brain gets the benefit. When we are actually engaged in the exercise itself blood is directed away from the PFC (prefrontal cortex) to the body. This delivers the oxygen to the muscles. When we finish exercising, blood shifts back to the PFC with fresh oxygen enhancing our capacity to focus.


Exercise is inconvenient for many people. It should be structured into every day and even though it is easy to do, many people chose not to do it. More and more people are experiencing health related diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Diabetes is the fastest growing chronic health condition in Australia. Diabetes Australia suggests that 280 Australians develop diabetes every day and predict by 2031 there will be 3.3 million people with type 2 diabetes. Not having a daily exercise regime structured into our day is a choice. Too busy is not a reason; it’s an excuse. Some of the busiest people I know have exercise routines that keep them healthy. So why aren’t we all having exercise as part of our day?

It is ease not to do it. Even though walking is easy to do, not walking is easier. The fatal error that many of us make is that is doesn’t matter today but the cumulative effect of not exercising today adds up over the long term. So the choice of diet and exercise is one of those slowly evolving processes where it doesn’t matter in that instant but over time it adds up and it does matter.

If you are one of those people who have had a ‘crunch time’ with your health and a doctor has advised you to lose weight, it is far more difficult if the process of regular exercise is foreign to you.


The brain area responsible for most of our movement, balance and gross motor control happens in the cerebellum. It contains nearly half of all our neurons and the dendrites and neural tracts that lead from the cerebellum back into other areas of the brain. Therefore it stands to reason that a fit and healthy cerebellum (developed through regular exercise) will influence our memory, attention and learning in general. Elite athletes have finely tuned cerebellums that enable them to predict and control movements before they execute. They are able to think about an activity in advance by visualising an expected behaviour in their mind. Athletes (and those who visualise often) have the power to send neural messages from the brain to the body that enable it to know exactly what to do. The mind, body connection comes from hours of practice elevating people to the highest level of knowing – unconscious competence. It is a state of operating on autopilot. Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi refers to such a state as flow. That ultimate level of performance is where actions seem effortless and time stands still. Many athletes refer to this state as being in the zone.


How does exercise help stress?

Regular exercise delivers more fresh oxygen to the blood and ultimately to the brain, improving the body’s ability to remove toxins and boost cognitive capacity. The capillaries throughout the body become far more healthy reducing blood pressure. When heart rate increases due to exercise the body produces a hormone ANP (atrial natriuretic peptide), which tempers stress by calming the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis. The HPA axis is overactive in far too many people due to an overactive amygdala. The HPA axis involves the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. Exercise produces the ANP hormone, which has the ability to get through the blood brain barrier and into the hypothalamus to calm the HPA axis by slowing adrenaline and increasing GABA and serotonin. GABA and serotonin calm the body and help fight depression and anxiety. Exercise also promotes the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) a growth protein that protects brain cells from disease and promotes the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus.


What exercise is best?

Voluntary exercise is the best for engaging the frontal lobes. That simple process of making a choice activates the frontal lobe by focusing the attention of the brain onto the effort you are about to perform.

When we exercise against our desire it doesn’t have the same affect.

The Californian Public Schools system implemented FITNESSGRAM; a test developed by the Cooper Institute for students in grades 5,7 and 9 to assess levels of fitness. They implemented the program after an extensive study carried out by the Californian Education Department clearly showed students with higher fitness scores had better academic scores, better memory, concentration and behaviour. Their overall goal is to establish in young people lifelong habits of regular physical activity.



In conclusion the evidence is clear. Regular exercise is good for the body and good for the brain. The challenge for all of us is to build regular exercise into our day so that we as teachers can be true to the learning cycle. The learning cycle involves learning, doing, modelling and teaching. Great teachers are life long learners. They love learning, they put their new learning into practice and they model what they learn. The last stage of the cycle is teaching and it is this stage that separates good teachers from great teachers. Great teachers have extraordinary power to transfer knowledge. Having a teaching degree doesn’t mean a person has great transfer ability. The ability to transfer and relate comes from continual practice and that special ability to get others to follow your influence. If we are trying to persuade students in the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, modelling it in our own life is an effective starting point.

I should point out that I have known extremely fit teachers who in my view have been less than effective teachers.