How Movement Improves Intelligence

Access and Inclusion February 20, 2017
Want smarter kids? Let them move!
In too many classrooms around the globe, children are expected to sit through the day while passively absorbing huge amounts of information.  A quiet, almost petrified student has been synonymous with concentration and productivity. Sometimes, even sitting up is not enough; children are required to avoid any “unnecessary” noise or movement.  No finger drumming. Quit the fidgeting. Stop wiggling in your seat. Breathe quietly. Don’t even think about moving your eyeballs away from the blackboard or your book. 
If you must move, then wait until recess, or Physical Education class, if you are lucky to have one every day. Most kids are not. Some are even robbed of whatever physical time they had in favor of remedial work on reading or math. Who wants to “loose time” with PE when you have very important subjects to catch up? 
Just imagine how it would be for you to work in such an environment, where movement was almost sacrificed for the sake of preserving order.
Educators were –and still are- many times judged by their ability to keep the students still and silent. Praises abounded for those who had the most effective “group control”. The disorganized teacher, at the best, or the lazy or crazy, at the worst, was the one whose kids were “unruly and disruptive”, meaning that they abandoned their seats often – or didn’t use them at all. 
But bodies are meant for moving.  And amazingly, the part of the brain that processes movement is the same part that processes learning.  (Jensen, 2008)  Yet, according to the World Health Organization (2016), 81% of adolescent students around the globe are not moving enough. Younger kids are doing better, but still two thirds of them are not physically active every day, as reported by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
Research is providing us with mounting evidence of how movement improves learning and even, may we say, intelligence.  The relationship begins early, but goes beyond the first years. Motor development in infancy – specifically crawling in babies – has been proven to impact reading and writing skills (Ratey, 2002). Older students who are engaged in daily physical programs show better academic performance and better attitude towards school (Donevan & Andrew, 1986). And even adults who exercise regularly have far more cortical mass than those who don’t (Anderson, Eckburg & Relucio, 2002)
Movement feeds, grows and organizes your brain.  And better brains allow for better learning.  These arguments keep showing up in scientific publications everywhere:
1. Movement feeds your brain (Oxygenation). When you move, your heart rate increases, enhancing blood flow. The amount of oxygen being transported to the brain rises – and of course, oxygen is the brain’s premium food. More oxygen in the brain means more fuel for thinking, learning and creating. 
2. Movement grows your brain (Neurogenesis). Once a wildly controversial topic, the concept of neurogenesis  – literally, new neuron growth- is pretty much established. There are many factors that favor it. Among them, physical activity was shown to be “strongly correlated with increases in brain mass and cell production, as well as in improved cognitive processing” (Sousa, 2010, p.15)
3. Movement organizes your brain (Integration). At any given moment, your brain is being bombarded with sensory input. In order to adequately respond to challenges, it needs to process the incoming information and combine it with data already stored from previous experiences.  If this integration happens seamlessly, you are able to respond accordingly. This is the basis of functional intelligence. 
Imagine that you arrive home late one night. Immediately upon opening the door, you perceive a funny smell (sensory stimuli). Your brain retrieves prior learning and you recognize what it is: gas. You quickly go to the kitchen and just one glimpse (again, sensory input) lets you realize that the burner knob on your gas stove is turned open.  So far, the brain has been effective in receiving the sensory information, processing it alongside warehoused knowledge and arriving at conclusions. This would be the equivalent of correctly answering a school test. 
But you need to do more. What would happen if once you acknowledge that there is a gas leak in the kitchen, you just go to your bedroom to sleep? The outcome would surely be tragic. Luckily, you know better. So you turn the knob closed, open all windows in your home and leave for a while, taking any other living creature along. This is functional intelligence. This is the equivalent of actually doing something with the information that your brain receives: applying knowledge. 

The vestibular (inner ear) system in the brain and the cerebellum (the center for motor control) are critical for functional intelligence: Not only they regulate incoming sensory data (Jensen, 2008) they also weave thoughts into actions. Physical activities that develop balance and stimulate inner-ear motion actually grow the integrative areas of the brain (Doman, Doman & Hagy, 2012). Crawling, creeping, swinging, spinning, rolling and tumbling can do the trick. Palmer (2003) has documented significant gains in reading and attention from these activities. 
There is so much going on inside our children’s heads when they are having fun in the playground. They are actually unfolding brainpower. 
And time spent developing brains is never lost time. 
Anderson, B.J.,  Eckburg, P.B., & Relucio, K.I. (2002) Alterations in the thickness of motor cortical subregions after motor-skill learning and exercise. Learning and Memory, 9, 1-9.
Doman, G., Doman, D.,  & Hagy, B. (2012) Fit Baby, Smart Baby, Your Baby! New York, Square One Publishers.
Donevan, R.H., & Andrew, G.M. (1986). Plasma B- endorphin immunoreactivity during graded cycle ergometry. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 19 (3), 231.
Jensen, E. (2008) Teaching with the brain in mind. 2nd Edition. Alexandria, USA, ASCD
Palmer, L. (2003, July 25). Smart Start Program: Evidence form two schools: Vestibular stimulation improves academic performance. Lecture at Learning Brain EXPO, Chicago.
President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Facts and Statistics. Retrieved on January 30th from
Ratey, J.J.  (2002) A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention and the Four Theaters of the brain. New York, Vintage Books.
Sousa, D.A (Ed) (2010) Mind, Brain and Education. Neuroscience implications for the classroom.  Bloomington, IN, Solution Tree Press.
World Health Organization (2016) Physical Activity Fact Sheet. Retrieved on January 30th, 2017 from