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Brain fertilizer: Phy ed staff stresses connection between fitness, academics

You won't find a copy of "Phy Ed for Dummies" in the Perham school locker rooms.

But you will find copies of "Brain Rules," a book that scientifically proves that exercise boosts brain power.

And that is the thrust of the school's physical education programs-from kindergarten on up.

The mission of the phy ed staff is to enhance academic achievement and learning through physical education. The phy ed department will not function as a separate entity, but rather, as a program integrated into the system, explained Mike Peterson, who made a presentation to the Perham School Board Nov. 18-along with the entire K-12 phy ed department.

Physical activity, learning and memory are all interconnected, according to current research.

Also involved in the presentation were Howie Kangas, elementary and high school phy ed; James Mulcahy, middle school phy ed and health; Ryan Hendrickson, K-6 phy ed and adaptive physical education; Cheryl Rutten, middle school health and phy ed; and Kim Kollar, family and consumer science and phy ed.

One extensive study of a larger school district, which followed the progress of students with a more complete, integrated phy ed program over a decade, concluded that there was a 17 percent improvement in reading and comprehension. Also, 97-98 percent of the students were at a healthy weight and passed fitness tests. Whereas, nationwide, studies suggest that more than 30 percent of high school students are overweight; and they spend more than five hours a day in front of a screen, be it television or computer.

Studies also conclude that integrated phy ed programs cut discipline problems and the number of violent acts in schools.

Among the phy ed highlights outlined by the staff at the Nov. 18 school board meeting:

-- If you visit Heart of the Lakes Elementary School and see children "crab-walking" to use the restroom, don't be alarmed. It is part of a broader school effort to keep students moving and active.

-- Students are studying while walking the school hallways; quizzing one another for tests. Walking and studying has a calming affect, and reduces pre-test anxiety.

-- Individual fitness plans, customized to each student, are a goal in the high school. Weight training and more active use of the Perham Area Community Center facilities are planned.

-- In the middle school, students are walking as much as possible. Students are wearing meters that measure the number of steps and convert to miles. Nearly 5,000 total miles have been walked-or about 9.4 million steps, collectively by all students. Students are deploying math skills by calculating how far they've walked-which at this point is the equivalent of Perham to Minneapolis to the eastern seaboard.

"We are all recognizing the role of phy ed as a tool for learning," said elementary school Principal Kari Yates, describing daily physical activity as "brain fertilizer."