In 1980, about 7% of children (aged 6-11 years) and 5% of adolescents (aged 12-19 years) in the United States were considered obese [1,2]. As of 2012, just 30 years later, more than 30% of both children and adolescents were considered overweight or obese . Being overweight or obese as a child can have long-term health consequences, such as increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and bone and joint problems, to name a few .
There are many factors that can contribute to being overweight or obese. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have linked sitting for long periods of time (a common occurrence in most classrooms) with a number of poor health outcomes, including obesity. Even well-known news outlets, like the New York Times and Washington Post, have popularized research on the “dangers of sitting”; they echo recommendations made by the Mayo Clinic and other research organizations to stand more often (like using standing desks) in place of sitting for long periods of time.
Let’s Move!, launched by Michelle Obama, is one example of the many initiatives dedicated to solving the challenge of childhood obesity. The goal of programs like this is to get students up and moving during the day and to have them learn about healthy eating habits. Healthy diets and activity can help kids reduce the risk of becoming overweight or obese, which is critical for avoiding those long-term health consequences . Schools can play an important role by providing opportunities throughout each day, in every classroom, for students to get up and moving.
We have to think beyond just physical education classes. We need to include movement throughout the school day, and we can do so much more than “brain breaks” or getting students to stand during class time. We need to tap into the power of kinesthetic learning to get students physically active in classrooms, literally out of their seats and engaged in vigorous content-related movement.
Kinesthetic learners are a growing population in our schools. These students are highly successful when physically engaged in an activity during learning. They take in content best when participating in activities such as labs, skits, field trips, or dances. Activities like these are growing in popularity because they address the needs of students with different learning styles, including kinesthetic learners . This move away from lecture-based classrooms to more “hands-on” learning environments is a good start, however, more can be done to include activities that incorporate high impact movements with classroom content in order to improve students’ health while learning.
Every student, at any age, can benefit from kinesthetic activities. In fact, brain research supports numerous links between movement and learning. For example, oxygen is essential for brain function, and enhanced blood flow increases the amount of oxygen transported to the brain. Sitting passively limits the blood flow to the brain, hence limiting the brain’s optimal functioning . Physical activity is a great way to increase blood flow, and hence oxygen, to the brain (see images above and below). Also, there is a correlation between movement and attention. If students are active in their learning, they are more attentive to the task at hand, as opposed to sitting passively with their mind wandering during a purely auditory (listening) activity . In addition, many studies connect movement to increased cognition, better memory, reduced likelihood of depression, improved classroom behavior and increased academic performance [8, 9, 10].
With all this research to support movement and exercise, why are students still sitting in their seats most of the school day? It’s largely a problem of time. Because of the rigorous content requirements, teachers have no practical or justifiable way of getting students up and moving during the day. They have a curriculum that needs to be delivered and having students passively sit for a lengthy lecture is mistakenly seen by many as the quickest way to “cover” content. There is a better way. Flipping the classroom is not only a more efficient method for delivering content to students, it also “creates” class time that can be used to get students up and moving.
Once we’ve freed up class time, we can go beyond the simple activities, like taking three minute “brain breaks” or standing during lessons; those activities are not connected to the content. Instead, I suggest that teachers use my kinesthetic lessons, which are assignments that get students up and moving.
The Walk & Talk strategy is simple and powerful. Students are given questions about the content that they are responsible for discussing, answering and teaching back to the class. To activate the brain and create a healthy learning environment, students are directed to walk and talk while completing the assignment.
Another basic kinesthetic lesson might look like this: Assign students to groups and have them design and act out movements that demonstrate the key topics in the current chapter. This lesson is both kinesthetic and directly connected to the content.
Using curriculum music in the classroom is another powerful way to promote kinesthetic learning. When music is present during class time, most students naturally start moving to the beat while sitting at their desks. The next step is to have them stand up in order to expand upon those movements. In addition to helping students be more kinesthetically active, this method has also been shown to increase excitement and motivation for learning .
A kinesthetic lesson (i.e., music and movement-based lesson plan) might look like this: Play a song about cells in a science class. Then, assign students to groups and have them come up with movements (an interpretive dance) that demonstrate the meaning of the lyrics . This lesson is both kinesthetic and directly connected to the content.
To make this teaching method more accessible for educators, I have designed Kinesthetic Lectures (KLs). KLs are short videos that take students through a series of basic kinesthetic movements that correspond directly to each part of a content-based song. They give teachers and students a starting point for using music and movement in the classroom (example KLs about waves). Students can start with learning the basic movements to a content-based song by watching the KL videos, but teachers can eventually go beyond by challenging students to come up with their own movements.
Teachers at every grade level can use these strategies in any classroom to ignite learning and encourage movement. If students get up and moving we can expect their brains to function better, attention to improve, memory to increase, behavior to improve, academic performance to increase, and of course, it will improve their physical health. It is time to take a stand against this obesity epidemic and our classrooms are on the front lines. We must get our students up and moving today if we want healthy citizens tomorrow.
– Dr. Brandy Parker & Dr. Lodge McCammon
. Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. (2011-2012) Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association 2014;311(8):806-814.
. National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2011: With Special Features on Socioeconomic Status and Health. Hyattsville, MD; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012.
. Office of the Surgeon General. The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation. Rockville, MD, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010
. Feldman J. and McPhee, D., The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching. CENGAGE
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. Anderson, B. J., Eckburg, P. B., & Relucio K. I. (2002) Alterations in the Thickness of Motor Cortical Subregions After Motor-Skill Learning and Exercise. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
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. Artal, M. (1998) Exercise against depression. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 26(10):55-60.
 Dwyer, Sallis, Blizzard, Lazarus, & Dean. (2001).Relation of Academic Performance to Physical Activity and Fitness in Children. Pediatric Exercise Science, 13, 225-237.
. Dwyer, T., Blizzard, L., & Dean, K. (1996) Physical Activity and Performance in Children. Nutrition Reviews. Volume 54, Issue 4, pages S27–S31.
. McCammon, W (2008) Chemistry to Music.