Holistic Health: Applying Best Practices to Optimize Performance for Students

Earlier this month, I attended a conference at The Running School in London. The topic was biomechanics + neuromuscular repatterning as it relates to movement and pain management after injury or trauma. What was interesting was how multi-faceted the process is, especially considering the role that nutrition and sleep play in recovery. These are two aspects over which we have some semblance of control, therefore, it is encouraging to realize just how powerful we are during this phase as we transition from dysfunction to health.

Many of the ideas presented have direct parallels to the challenges I face with my students in the classroom. Below is a brief summary of the relevant ideas. I have extracted the salient points that the instructor reviewed and framed them in a context that is easily transferable to the educational realm. I highly recommend attending one of the workshops to fully grasp the nuances and implications of the material. 

If we truly desire to educate today’s youth, we must consider a variety of factors. Physical activity, nutrition, sleep, and lifestyle habits all play a vital role in determining the success of our students. Because these aspects are interconnected, it is essential to assist students in balancing them effectively for optimal impact.

Although progress has been made regarding the style of classroom instruction, and much lip-service paid to risk-taking and the idea of “progress, not perfection”, the ultimate gauge of success is the final grade. Often times, students who perform sub-optimally are relegated to additional hours of instruction, sitting with a tutor or in Resource Support. This is unfortunate as research indicates that physical activity improves cognitive function. Among the many studies, data supports the idea that exercise increases blood flow to the brain. The subsequent oxygenation has an advantageous effect, potentially improving cognitive and executive function, and promoting the generation of new brain cells. Further, there is evidence to suggest that intense cardio exercise can stimulate growth in the hippocampus, the brain center responsible for verbal memory and learning. The benefits of exercise, both resistance and cardio training, are unequivocable. For information in a nutshell, please watch this TEDtalk video.

Indirectly, exercise impacts sleep. Regular and vigorous exercise improves sleep quality which has a positive relationship to our students’ alertness and classroom performance. Indeed, lack of adequate, restful sleep has a deleterious effect on our students because it dysregulates cortisol levels (the “stress” hormone) and subsequent hormone/endocrine function.

A common contributor to sleep dysfunction among teenagers and adolescents is technology. Between completing assignments on a laptop and chatting with peers on cell phones, young people are in a state of unrecognized peril. Not only does the blue light offset natural cues of the circadian rhythm and melatonin, but the physiological stresses induced can lead to depression/anxiety, increased Body Mass Index (in an already overweight/obese society), and cognitive impairment (with potential implications for increasing manifesting symptoms of ADHD and other learning differences).

With these known dangers, it behooves us to consider possible ways to mitigate the threat. Initial clinical trials with the ketogenic diet offer a promising start to understanding how diet can help maintain cognitive integrity. Whether because of caloric restriction or as the result of reducing the intake of inflammatory sugar, following a ketogenic diet provides a possible solution to improved physical and mental health, and subsequent success in the classroom. *It bears mentioning that although the brain thrives off glucose, other forms of sugar are inclined to be problematic. Just as oxygenation encourages cognitive enhancement, poor vascularization can have the reverse effect.

Every day, we learn more about the relationship between physical and mental health. It is evident that the interplay also holds the key to success in the classroom. As educators, we would do well to hold these tenets dear and pass them along to our students. Our boundless potential can be realized if we begin by repatterning our neuroplastic brains to embrace a healthy lifestyle that reflects exercise, recovery, rest, and nutrition.

Further Reading:

The Brain that Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Dr. Matthew Walker

The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes

 

 


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