In his fascinating book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century author Thomas Friedman decries how American students have fallen behind other nations in such fields as math and engineering.  At the same time students in the U.S. have excelled at becoming couch potatoes: 65% of Americans are overweight, but this has become an epidemic among young people.  “We are literally killing ourselves,” John Ratey says in his book Spark, adding, “What’s even more disturbing, and virtually no one recognizes, is that inactivity is killing our brains too—physically shriveling them.”

Enter the Naperville School District near Chicago. In this single district of the 19K sophomores, only 3% were overweight (compared to 30% nationally).  But the students in this district are not only more fit. In 1999 their 8th graders took the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test, an international standards test taken by 230K students globally. Ratey observes that in a time students in China, Japan, and Singapore rank consistently above American students, the Naperville class ranked 6th in math and FIRST in science globally.

What happened in this school district? Several factors, as one reason hardly ever explains such a remarkable performance. But one issue stands out: the beginning of school each day in Naperville called Zero Hour in which students begin not with study hall but with a fitness class. Ratey observes:

“The essence of physical education in Naperville 203 is teaching fitness instead of sports. The underlying philosophy is that if physical education class can be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness, then the lessons they learn will serve them for life.”  Imagine that, expecting young people to be responsible for developing their own fitness goals for a lifelong trajectory.

Sounds rather like raising the bar to me.

He continues: “What’s being taught, really, is a lifestyle. The students are developing healthy habits, skills, and a sense of fun, along with a knowledge of how their bodies work.”  You mean you can teach young people that fun is not separate from learning responsibility?

Now, there is a novel thought for student ministry. Just saying.

The Naperville school district ranks consistently in the top ten in Illinois even though the amount of money it spends per pupil is considerably lower than other top Illinois schools. Could it be that fitness is the most inexpensive means to raise test scores?

What has happened in Naperville did not begin with a brilliant educator with a mensa-level IQ. It started with a PE teacher who read about the growing unhealthiness of American students. But you can read Ratey’s book to get the details, and I encourage you to do so.

For the Naperville students they no longer take gym classes with inane topics like learning the dimensions of a volleyball court. They start with first period and heart rate monitors running a mile. What they discovered: learning is significantly enhanced when preceded by exercise.

If you are a student struggling with academics, and sometimes discouraged or even depressed by your setbacks, try exercising. Get up, get active, start your day by getting your body going. Just do this for a while and see what happens. More studies than can be counted have noted the positive, ripple effect of exercise on dealing with depression, on eating better, on developing discipline, and on one’s general disposition.

Now we know that it also can directly affect academic performance.

So, students, if you are serious about becoming better in your studies, don’t start in the library at a desk with a stack of books–start at your home with some running shoes or a set of weights.

You may discover you are smarter than you thought.

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