Champaign Middle School Adds Exercise Machines
(Funded in part by a grant from the Lumpkin Family Foundation)
Research at the University of Illinois suggests physical activity can boost cognitive health. To test that theory, Jefferson Middle School in Champaign recently added exercise equipment for its students.
Marcelon Mosley, 11, walks on a treadmill in the assistant principal's office at Jefferson Middle School in Champaign. Mosley started off using the treadmill about three times a week for about 30-to-45 minutes. He can come off as being very calm, expressing very little emotion, but he admits he isn't always that way. He said there have been times when he has reacted strongly to other kids' comments about him, or just hasn't felt motivated enough to keep up with his school work.
When the school began adding the exercise equipment at the start of the academic year, his teachers thought it might be easier for him to relax and focus by getting on a treadmill a few times each week.
He explains that he determines the speed of the treadmill based on his level of anger. If he is in a really bad mood, he said he may double the speed from his normal two miles per hour.
"When it goes faster, it calms me down cause I have so much energy that I want to break somebody's neck or something, and then I just use up my energy walking on the treadmill," Mosley said. Since he started using the treadmill at the beginning of the school year, Mosley admits that he is doing a better job now controlling his anger.
His mom, Cheryl Moore, has even noticed a difference in his behavior. She credits that not only to the exercise, but also to what she and school officials are doing to hold Mosley accountable when he misbehaves or doesn't turn in homework assignments on time.
"I think that it's kind of like a coalition basically with the parents and the teachers working together," Moore said. "What's that famous saying? It takes a village to raise a child." Mosley - along with five of his other siblings - all have ADHD, and he is one of two of them currently medicated for it. His mother hopes to get him off of it by the time he's in high school, but not if that compromises his performance in the classroom.
"It's hardest with Marcelon because actually out of all of our children, he takes the most amount of milligrams," Moore said. "He's very overwrought, and we try to let him do lots of exercise as much as she wants to. He just has tons of energy. It's like the wild in his eyes. When he acts like that, we're like, 'Do you need to go outside and play a lot more?'"
Students like Marcelon seems to benefit from this exercise equipment brought in by University of Illinois Professor Charles Hillman.
Hillman said there is a positive relationship between physical activity and cognitive health. Hillman, who teaches kinesiology and community health at the U of I, has already explored this connection with pre-adolescents, young adults, and older adults. After approximately one hour of exercise, he found that these age groups showed improvements in cognition and achievement.
"What's good for children is good for young adults," Hillman said. "What's good for young adults is good for older adults. Being healthy and exercising and having a higher level of fitness relates to better brain health and better cognition. And so because of that, I believe we need to act early. "
Now, Hillman is doing the same research, but this time with middle school students.
"Puberty changes a lot of things. It changes body. It changes hormone production, and it changes brain," he explained. "And so it's interesting to see during a time when kids are actively going through puberty, what these relationships are between fitness or health factors such as body mass and cognition in children."
Hillman and U of I Psychology Professor Neal Cohen are studying students at Jefferson over a three year period.
They believe that being overweight may affect parts of the brain associated with attention, memory, and cognition. As part of their research, Jefferson Middle School agreed to install exercise equipment around the school - aerobic balls in classrooms, Marcelon's treadmill, and bikes in the library.
In the school library students take turns riding on the exercise bikes. Librarian Kim Anderson said it is a challenge identifying ways the library can support students other than through literacy, which is why when she first heard about the school's exercise initiative, she jumped at the idea.
"They are actually reading when they're working out, and we also have a couple of iPads that we set up, so that they Velcro right onto the stationary bikes so they can flip through and either read a book online or work on one of the education apps," Anderson said.
Some of the students say 30 minutes of physical activity during gym class isn't enough time to stay active during the school day. Eight grader Paige Ducharme said getting more exercise has helped her concentrate.
"Cause you get your brain - like not really moving - but you get more energy inside of you so you find yourself awake more and more energized to be able to listen and make your brain function more," Ducharme said.
Students using the exercise equipment is part of Principal Susan Zola's larger vision. She also plans to transform the school's multipurpose room into an exergaming room where students would be exposed to a combination of games and exercise. In the space,
Zola envisions being able to grab a heart monitor, and do a cross country virtual tour in the mountains.
"So, it's like Wii on steroids," Zola said. "We believe it will take our students health and wellness to a whole different level."
While Marcelon Mosely and Paige Ducharme are physically fit, Zola said there are students at Jefferson who do battle their weight and other related health issues. Zola believes physical activity should be a priority for all students - even those who just want to work up a sweat.
"Wellness and students' well-being and where they land in terms of their healthy living impacts us all in the future," Zola said. "So, the stronger they are in terms of their hearts their spirits their minds their academics, the stronger citizens the stronger community members, the healthier our community will be as a whole."