‘They’re pumped up and motivated’
It’s early on a Monday morning, and fitness instructor Chantal Boivin bounces around the stage at Northeastern Elementary School to popular dance tunes such as Gangnam Style and Sexy and I Know It.
With seemingly boundless energy, 200 children from Grades 1-8 follow her moves. Sweating teachers do their best to keep up with their pace.
Grade 8 student Carter Rollins said he just feels good when he’s done the 45-minute workout. “It wakes up your brain, I guess, because it’s morning,” he said.
“It’s very fun. You get to dance.”
The pilot exercise program was introduced at five Rainbow District School Board schools — Northeastern, A.B. Ellis Public School, Queen Elizabeth Public School and Princess Anne Public School — this September.
The school board has invested $6,000 per school to hire fitness instructors to lead the sessions. Each student gets a chance to participate twice a week. The sessions are over and above their regular phys ed classes.
Norm Blaseg, the school board’s director of education, said the idea for the fitness sessions came from John Ratey’s 2008 book “Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”
The book puts forward the idea that physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel, and has a profound impact on physical and mental health and the ability to learn.
Fitness instructor Chantal Boivin leads Northeastern Elementary School students in their morning workout. Supplied photo.
“What they have found is the executive core functions increase considerably if they’re followed by an intense 30-45 minute workout,” Blaseg said.
“If kids get into a 45 minute workout and they’re able to get their heart rate up to about 60 to 80 per cent of their heart rate.
“Following that, the activity in their brain is much freer. They’re able to make these synapse connections that they otherwise would not be able to do.”
Studies in other areas have shown a 20 per cent increase in students’ literacy and numeracy scores after they participated in workout sessions.
Before the program began, the Rainbow board gave participating children fitness, literacy and numeracy tests. They’ll be tested again at the end of the school year to see if their scores have improved.
It isn’t any wonder that children respond so dramatically to a little physical activity, Blaseg said.
“Historically, we weren’t born into a world where we sat down, right?” he said. “Man was forced to move and to run and to think and strategize, and be very flexible and mobile. Over the years, with technology, of course we’ve become very, very passive.”
The average student spends seven or eight hours a day in front of a television screen, leading to a 33 per cent obesity rate, he said.
“We have to make sure we look at kids at a very young age, and create a culture of change,” Blaseg said.
Northeastern principal Kathy Wachnuk said her students love the fitness classes, which they refer to as “Spark classes.”
“Usually a lot of them come prepared, and they’re already changed in their gym clothes, and they have their water bottles,” she said.
“They bring their clothes to change into later on, after the physical fitness piece. They’re pumped up and motivated.”
Teachers tell Wachnuk that they’ve noticed a change in the children.
“They’re telling me that the kids are more focused when they return to class for their literacy block, which occurs right after we have the Spark in the morning,” she said.
“There seems to be less issues with off-task behaviour. Kids are focused and well-prepared for their learning. They can get their energy out upon arriving at school.”
Wachnuk said she “can’t imagine ever stopping” the classes. “It’s worked really well,” she said. “We’ve had a really good time with it, and we’re seeing a lot of benefits.”
The exercise pilot program will also play a part in the board’s mental health strategy, which it is in the process of developing, Blaseg said.
He said one in five children have mental health concerns, ranging from mild conditions such as anxiety to more severe problems such as bipolar disorder, so it’s important to have initiatives addressing this issue.
Blaseg said the board is in the process of developing partnerships with organizations which deal with children’s mental health.
For example, the board is looking at partnering with Toronto’s Sick Kids hospital to offer telepsychiatry sessions.
As of the new year, the board will hire two mental health nurses, which will travel from school to school, addressing students’ concerns. The nurses were hired through provincial funding.
“If we could make one intervention and have it stick, I think it’s worth it,” Blaseg said.