Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying the Research (Part IV)

Neuroscience for Teachers, Part 4

In this series, Dr. Laura Chaddock-Heyman, research scientist at the University of Illinois-Champaign, shares how exercise and fitness relate to the brain and why this is of utmost importance for educators. 

Catch up on:
 Part 1: Intro + Definitions
Part 2: All About Brain Structure
Part 3: Getting the Blood Flowing

So far, we’ve covered how and why our work suggests that higher levels of aerobic fitness and participation in physical activity benefit brain structure, white matter structural integrity, brain function, and cognition.

Let’s review.

  1. Brain structure. Higher fit children have larger brain volumes in the hippocampus and basal ganglia, which relate to superior performance on tasks of memory and cognitive control, compared to their lower fit peers.

  1. White matter structural integrity. Higher fit children show greater structural integrity in white matter tracts that send speedy signals throughout the brain and help brain regions communicate. Remember that more dense, fibrous tracts  with greater structural integrity suggest faster and more efficient communication of signals throughout the brain.

  1. Brain function. Higher fit and lower fit children also show differences in brain activation during tasks of cognitive control. The brain activation patterns in higher fit children are coupled with superior task performance. These cross-sectional findings are strengthened by a longitudinal intervention study that demonstrated that children randomly assigned to a physical activity intervention group showed greater brain and cognitive benefits compared to a control group.

How can we apply what we learned from this research to classroom use of GoNoodle?

We can infer from our research that GoNoodle brain breaks, particularly those of moderate and vigorous physical activity, may lead to gains in VO2 max, or aerobic fitness. In simpler terms, the more time you spend moving, the more physically fit you become. And the more fit you become, the better your brain functions.

In fact! Exercise breaks, also known as “acute exercise,” have also been shown to boost cognitive and brain health.

In one study (Hillman et al., 2009), students performed tests of cognitive control and academic achievement.

Then, half of the children walked on a treadmill for 20 minutes. The other children sat quietly.

Next, all the children took the tests again (once heart rate returned to within 10% of pre-exercise levels in the exercise group).

The children with the short exercise break showed:

Improvements in cognitive control!

Improvements in academic achievement!

Changes in brain waves!

And what’s more, these exciting acute exercise-cognition results extend to children with ADHD (Pontifex et al., 2013).

These studies suggest that even a short amount of physical activity has positive effects: immediate brain benefits after a brief period of moderate movement.

What this means for GoNoodling classrooms is that you aren’t imagining things when you feel like your class is sharper after a rigorous dance party! What seems to be counter-intuitive (“Shouldn’t my classroom have a harder time focusing after wiggling around?”) is scientifically sound. There is neuroscience magic happening in students’ brains after they move!

This research arrives at an important time. As core-subject standards increase, physical activity opportunities in schools decrease — ironically, in hopes of allotting the saved time towards standards-based learning. As a result, children are becoming increasingly sedentary, physically inactive, and unfit, and we would argue, their brains are becoming less powerful.

We hope our work emphasizes the importance of aerobic fitness and physical activity for the cognitive and brain health of today’s youth…

… as well as the incorporation of more physical activity opportunities, like GoNoodle, during the school day! Who knows? It may be the few extra brain breaks each day that give your students the boost of brain power they need to succeed!


Hillman, C. H., & Kramer, A. F. (2013). The effects of physical activity on functional MRI activation associated with cognitive control in children: A randomized controlled intervention. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 2-13.

Pontifex, M. B., Saliba, B. J., Raine, L. B., Picchietti, D. L., & Hillman, C. H. (2013). Exercise improves behavioral, neurocognitive, and scholastic performance in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The Journal of Pediatrics, 162, 543-551.