Fitness And Mental Excellence

I’m infrequently chipping away at John J. Ratey’s book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. What struck me immediately about this book is that, while majoring on science, it recognizes that its practical advice is perennial. The epigram that begins the book:

In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection. – Plato

He begins his book with the case of Naperville Central High School. This school begins its day with a fitness regiment for students, focused not on “sports”, but, as I said, on fitness. This is accomplished through simple running, with the goal of raising the heart rate of students, determined with monitors for each pupil. The science Ratey goes into in his book suggests there are many benefits to physical exercise on the brain and mental processes in specific. But the most memorable part of the first chapter for me was the following:

Those exams aren’t nearly as telling as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a test designed to compare students’ knowledge levels from different countries in two key subject areas. This is the exam cited by New York Times editorialist Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, when he laments that students in places like Singapore are “eating our lunch.” The education gap between the United States and Asia is widening, Friedman points out. Whereas in some Asian countries nearly half of the students score in the top tier, only 7 percent of U.S. students hit that mark.

TIMSS has been administered every four years since 1995. The 1999 edition included 230,000 students from thirty-eight countries, 59,000 of whom are from the United States. While New Tier and eighteen other schools along Chicago’s wealthy North Sore formed a consortium to take the TIMSS (thereby masking individual schools’ performance), Naperville 203 signed up on its own to get an international benchmark of its students’ performance. Some 97 percent of its eighth graders took the test–not merely the best and the brightest. How did they stack up? On the science section of the TIMSS, Naperville’s students finished first, just ahead of Singapore, and then the North Shore consortium. Number one in the world. On the math section, Naperville scored sixth, behind only Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. [13-14]

Ratey does acknowledge that Naperville resides in a demographically advantaged school district, in terms of race and income. Yet he argues that the coincidence of unusual phys-ed and exceptional science scores is too interesting to dismiss out of hand, especially in that Naperville is far from the only “wealthy suburb in the country with intelligent, educated parents. And in poor districts where Naperville-style PE has taken root, such as Titusville, Pennsylvania…, test scores have improved measurably.” (15)