No Gain, No Brain: How Physical Activity can Cause Increased Brain Function


Illustration credit: Loki Olin

When Jennifer Epstein, Health Education Teacher and Director of Outdoor Trips at Urban tells her freshmen health class to get up and go to the gym, to run around to “get high,” the classroom erupts with moans and groans. Grim-faced students get up and make their way to the gym. Twenty minutes later, their scowls have been transformed into wide smiles as they walk back to class, the sound of their laughter echoing off the walls. This transformation is no mystery. Evidence shows that when students are involved in a physical activity, their ability to retain information, focus on homework, and be productive are all positively impacted. 

Urban’s Director of Counseling Services, Kaern Kreyling said, “with the dominance of the transcript and academics, the dichotomy of separating body over the mind is emphasized, with little understanding of the mixture of the two.”

Epstein has found that freshmen students are more attentive in class after High Fridays. During High Fridays, students participate in physical activity, normally in the form of a game, to experience the endorphin rush that comes with getting naturally high through movement.  

Epstein recounted how “after everybody has run around, students often say ‘I feel more attentive,’ ‘I feel more awake,’ and ‘I feel more able to focus.’” 

This view coincides with a trend in the results of recent studies looking at the links between physical exercise and increased cognitive ability. The University of California, Columbia University, and the New York City Health Department released information on the effects of increased physical activity in a school setting. Charles Basch of Columbia University published a study in 2010, which found that with increased exercise, there are “increased brain-derived neurotrophins that support neuronal differentiation and survival in the developing brain.” Neurotrophins assure the survival of neurons in areas responsible for learning, memory, and higher thinking. 

Epstein said, “I’m just so grateful that my children’s public school offers P.E every day. It’s healthier for them to get that movement in during the day.” She understands that private schools often cannot offer P.E. because they need to be competitive in their course offerings, but believes “it’s an impossible situation” because of the benefits students would have if they were able to include daily exercise in their schedule.

Caroline Wu ‘22  said that by “being on cross country, you can improve mental strength and diligence in seeing other people around you work hard, which can inspire you to work hard as well.” She also strongly believes that the school policy around needing to drop a sport when a student faces academic peril needs to be altered.

Joe Skiffer, the Athletic Director at Urban, said: “If you’re able to just get out of your head and be in that space for two hours, it’s much more beneficial to go to practice before a test.” 

Epstein explained that although students often ask her to miss a rock climbing class in order to have time to study for a test or do homework, she does not allow this. Epstein said “students often thank me for this policy saying, ‘Oh, I’m so glad I went to rock climbing because when my body was physically tired I felt I was able to go home and just focus on work.’”

Kreyling, however, warns that big generalizations are fraught. She said, “Some people get really amped up or exhausted or spent, so I think there are so many variables, I wouldn’t want to cast it as positive or negative.”