SHORT bursts of moderate to vigorous exercise improve learning ability and problem-solving skills, according to Dr John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.
The author of 'Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain', Dr Ratey says a fast-paced workout boosts the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor – a protein he describes as the equivalent of 'miracle gro' for the brain.
"A workout at the gym or a brisk walk also seems to build better connections between brain cells," writes Dr Ratey. "Studies show that regular physical activity may increase the production of cells in the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in learning and memory.
"The end result is a brain that's better able to perform in school, at home or on the job."
Dr Ratey's work was partly inspired by a pioneering approach to PE developed in the Naperville High School district in Chicago in the 1990s.
Students were encouraged to begin the school day with a short run or workout on an exercise bike.
There was no competitive aspect and the only requirement was for each student to complete a workout that increased heart rate for a few minutes to a level that promotes improved cardiovascular function. Heart monitors were used to track students' progress and set individual targets.
The results were impressive. Some students achieved a 20pc improvement in maths, literacy and problem-solving skills and Naperville High School students now score in the top 5pc in the US for maths and science subjects.
Apart from the academic benefits, this approach to PE also improved discipline and reduced absenteeism.
Based on the Naperville experience and his own research, Dr Ratey has developed an exercise model called Learning Readiness Physical Education (LRPE).
This encourages students to push themselves for 15 to 20 minutes several times a week at a heart rate of 150-200bpm – this is the level at which exercise begins to improve brain function.
Some schools have also taken it further and offer students struggling with a particular subject the option of taking their exercise period before, for example, maths class.
Another element is 'small-sided' sports such as three-on-three basketball or soccer which keep the players constantly moving and gives them the benefit of a cardio workout and fun.