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Exergaming and the “Turned On” Brain By Dan Lawler, Ph.D.

When I observed the positive effects our Exergaming lab had on our elementary school, I was convinced that every student should have access to this type of lab.  Nothing I had observed before motivated students to exercise with the enthusiasm and spirit that this lab created.  The lab had a remarkable impact on our student body’s commitment to exercise and physical activity.  Students couldn’t wait for their scheduled time in our Exercise 4 Learning lab.

How and Why We Started an Exercise 4 Learning Lab:

Any teacher will tell you that, for an ADD/ADHD student, sitting in the classroom can be incredibly difficult.  They are the students that daydream, intrude, interrupt, blurt out, and have a difficult time in social situations.  As a principal for over 30 years, I recognized a pattern that existed for nearly all of our school’s ADD/ADHD students.  Each year started with a parent/teacher conference where we discussed the best ways for the teacher and the school to support their child.

There was always a high level of commitment on everyone’s part to do their best in providing a positive environment for the student to learn and grow.  What happened next was an agreed upon set of interventions that would be employed if the child was off-task or behaved inappropriately.  Unfortunately, largely because of seat time requirements, the student would begin to struggle with classroom expectations around listening, paying attention/staying focused, behaving appropriately, finishing assignments, and getting along with others.  The downward cycle had begun!!

Unfortunately, the results became predictable because the same pattern happened time and time again.  Initially, everyone tried earnestly to make things work.  However, even with best intentions, the student/teacher relationship would suffer.  This was usually do to the demand for seat time, a heavy dose of corrective feedback, and the student’s difficulty to stay continually focused.  All types of issues began to surface because tension mounted around the student’s behavior problems.

The student began to dislike the teacher, the teacher felt she was not being supported by the parent(s), and the parent(s) often looked for someone to blame because discipline and academic problems were increasing.  Everyone felt a little helpless.  Too often the student’s impulsivity and poor behavior led to unfortunate labels, i.e., “lazy”, “stubborn”, or “spoiled”.   Some years, everyone was able to hang together and have a decent outcome.  But in many other instances, spring semester rolled around and discussions began about placement in another teacher’s classroom or another school in hopes of serving the child more effectively.  Everyone was exhausted just looking for answers.

Over all those years of observing the dynamic response of classroom teachers with students having ADD/ADHD, the common denominator was a prescription of more structure, stricter discipline, and/or increased medication.  More structure often included depriving the student from recess as punishment and/or time for incomplete assignments to be finished.

The main intervention goals typically included positive reinforcement, redirection, and removal of privileges.  Time-Out, or isolation without intervention, was the most frequently applied strategy in the attempt to manage and change behaviors.  Unfortunately, all of the strategies combined, even with the best intentions, never quite led to the desired changes everyone was wanting.  Sadly, over time, the negative impact on the student’s self-esteem was always fairly significant.

The good news is that there is a more effective intervention that should be added to the school’s repertoire in responding to the needs of ADD/ADHD students.  We now know that exercise can have a far more beneficial impact on ADD/ADHD students than many of the other strategies.  And it does more than just “burn off energy”.  Research demonstrates that exercise actually “turns on” aspects of the brain that affect learning uptake and retention (Ratey, 2008).  It also decreases impulsivity and increases focus, preparing the student to learn.

By doing 10-15 minutes of exercise every 2 hours, students:” Improve attention/focus/mood/behavior” Grow brain neurons for memory and learning” Improve cardiovascular condition” Fight obesity and help prevent type 2 diabetes John Ratey, M.D. Harvard Medical School

Time-In Versus Time-Out:

Knowing that research supported exercise as an intervention to decrease behavior issues, increase focus, and increase learning, our school began to review options that would optimize the learning experience for our ADD/ADHD students.  During this time, I was introduced to a new concept in exercising called Exergaming by Phil Lawler, considered the “Father of the New PE”.  At my elementary school, our first experience with Exergaming equipment occurred when we installed two game bikes and 2 Dance Dance Revolution pads in a small resource room, creating a mini-lab.  The equipment was used as a Time-In intervention for students with ADD/ADHD.

Students would begin their day with 10-15 minutes on the Exergaming equipment.  Before afternoon academics started, those same students would go the mini-lab and work out for another 10-15 minutes.  In addition, teachers were coached to watch for student behaviors that reflected inattention and lack of concentration and sent them to the Time-In lab for 5-10 minutes to help them refocus.

The results were remarkable.  First, the students loved working out on the Exergaming equipment, even arriving early to school to exercise.  Second, we observed what the research had indicated–students went back to the classroom less impulsive and more ready to learn.  The intervention had a positive impact on the students, promoting academic success and increasing self-esteem.

A fourth grade teacher, who used this strategy with a particularly challenging student, said the following about her experience: “I couldn’t believe the positive difference that 10 minutes of exercise made for one of my ADHD students who was previously off-task, unfocused, and created many disruptions in the classroom.” Terry Deniston, Ph.D.Classroom Teacher

Certainly, Exergaming as an intervention is a very powerful and proactive strategy that will help ADD/ADHD students be more successful in school.  The initial key was the students’ motivation to use the Exergaming equipment.  Eventually, the students were able to understand and correlate how a “turned on brain” improves focus and attention.  Students were excited to conduct their workouts and always looked forward to the experience.  That is why every school should have a lab or mini-lab to support these students who, for so long, have had such a difficult time succeeding in our schools.  Your parents, teachers, and students will applaud you for your new intervention and the positive effects it will have for these students.

Research findings indicate that nearly 7,200 students drop out of school each day (Wingert, 2010).  I would suggest that a segment of the 1.3 million students who drop out annually struggle with the effects of ADD/ADHD.   Schools can afford this intervention (I encourage you to visit Exergame Fitness for equipment information), and it can have a huge pay-off for the students, teachers, administrators, and parents.

Ratey,  J.  (2008).  Spark:   The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  New York:  Little,             Brown and Company.  Terry Deniston  (personal communication, Sept 10, 2009)Wingert, Patrice.  “The (Somewhat) Good and (Mostly) Bad News about High School Dropout Rates“.  2010.  June 14, 2010

All Exergaming products mentioned in this article was provided by Exergame Fitness USA | 847-963-8969 | Email

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