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Fitness, A Critical Pathway to Excellence

Fitness is a critical and natural pathway to academic excellence, growth mindset, improved teamwork and community, and leadership development—for both students and faculty.

Action shot of a middle-school class playing soccer on a field

By The TFA Editorial Team

April 2, 2015

In the United States, physical exercise is typically treated as a separate activity, something that you do outside of your daytime vocation. This is true in schools as well, where physical education is often not appreciated as a crucial part of the education experience. Fitness is a critical and natural pathway to academic excellence, growth mindset, improved teamwork and community, and leadership development—for both students and faculty. Rigorous exercise that includes high intensity interval training (HIIT) built around functional movement impacts not only students’ health and fitness, but also social and emotional skills development that is widely recognized as critical to success in life.

Academic Impact

Several new books point to the physiological benefits for rigorous fitness on the body and the brain. In Spark, Dr. John Ratey points out that rigorous fitness is beneficial to the body and even more beneficial to the brain. Research shows that the executive function of cognitive flexibility, our ability to shift thinking and be creative, is improved after exercise. Fitness has a profound positive impact on a broad range of cognitive activities including stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, and aging.

Growth Mindset

Based on our experience, fitness is also a vital pathway to developing a growth mindset, which spills over and impacts every area of a student’s life. Carol Dweck describes people with a growth mindset as believing “that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Physical exercise provides students with the concrete experience of developing and growing stronger through dedication and hard work. 

Learning new exercises and experiencing the thrill of getting more fit becomes a living metaphor for the growth mindset. Once a student sees how hard work and dedication translate to fitness results, it is an easy connection for students to see how the same lessons apply to academic achievement.

School Culture, the Role of Leaders

A school with leaders who embrace the challenge of achieving mental, emotional, and physical excellence will set the conditions for the collective body—both faculty and students—to do the same. Fitness culture is not defined by athleticism, expensive equipment, or a big gym; rather, it is defined by a predominant belief in a set of principles. Leaders drive that, and they must be intentional about it.

School Culture, the Role of Teachers

One question teachers, observers and leaders should ask themselves when observing a PE class:  are the core values of the school more or less present in this teacher and throughout the class? School culture cannot be simply maintained in a physical education class. Culture is like gravity; if it is not being pushed upward, it falls. Teachers have a responsibility to run a physical education class with the same level of culture, discipline, management, and execution as a top academic course. Anything less is a loss for the students and the school.

Individuals develop over time through a variety of challenging experiences with the requisite support and feedback from mentors, teachers, peers, and family. We find it interesting that many of the key concepts that apply in leader development also apply to academic and physical fitness development. Development is development, and making the connection explicit increases students’ understanding of and commitment to broad personal development.

The authors are educators at the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago.