The benefits of movement and exercise for learning

More than a year into the pandemic, it dawned on me that my nighttime classes might feel better if we incorporated a bit of yoga into them. Since then, I’ve done it often with students, and at least half of them seem to really appreciate it. It brings some joy and relief into our marathon academic nights. People sometimes think that movement drains energy, but the opposite is usually true. Movement, especially when it’s only moderately strenuous, is revitalizing. It stimulates our mind and improves our mood. I’m a particular fan of exercise that uses the body’s own weight instead of using artificial resistance, since the former promotes integration across different parts of the body.

In class, I typically do very simple poses, the type accessible to beginners or people with injuries. While I sometimes model on myself, I prefer to show pictures that capture the whole shape more easily than my Zoom camera. This link is a nice reference because it shows a range of body types performing the poses, reinforcing the idea that this is an activity for everyone. I’ve invited students to lead as well, since some of them have shared that they have backgrounds in sports, dance,  personal training, or martial arts, though most students prefer to be on the receiving end.

From the public health perspective, movement is critical. We didn’t evolve sitting at desks for 8+ hours a day, and our bodies aren’t really built for it. Research has found that people “who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to that posed by obesity and smoking.” For people who are very active, however, the number of hours spent sitting didn’t increase their risk of death.

Even movements that don’t feel like exercise are incredibly engaging for learners. A number of our teachers have been experimenting with movement-based grammar, vocabulary, and conversation activities. Simply put, these activities capture the way we use language in our daily lives: We move in response to other people, and we speak and listen while doing it! Movement-based activities have gotten a terrific response from students, and the biggest lesson I’d like students to take from this post is that many authentic communication situations use movement. Whether you are touring a new place, mingling at a social event, or walking with a friend, your mind is wired to learn best when your body is active.

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