Reduce the Wintertime Blues


Want a Secret on How to Reduce the Wintertime Blues?

When the daylight hours get shorter, there’s a tendency to become less active. Sometimes we get more stressed, maybe we put on some weight and even get a bit cranky. But there’s a simple antidote to the “Wintertime Blues”.

The Research on How to Remove the Blues

Here’s a quick update on a powerful strategy you can do in the classroom. I do an update on this topic every couple of years because I am so passionate about it.

While many schools are reducing physical activity because of time constraints created by the Common Core or No Child Left Behind Act, a large group of recent studies has linked physical activity with cognition and better behaviors.

The researchers have come at the topic from a wide range of disciplines. Some are cognitive scientists, some are exercise physiologists. Other advocates are educational psychologists, neurobiologists, or physical educators.

To verify the hypothesis that physical activity is beneficial, we check the applied research to find out what happens to student achievement in schools where physical activity is either added or strengthened.

I will be summarizing the abstract from several recent studies here. This first study is on a time-efficient physical activity that demonstrates the impact on academic achievement-related outcomes.

In a recent study, seven grade 3-5 classes (n = 88) were exposed to a single-group, repeated crossover design where each student’s selective attention was compared between no-activity and exercise days.

The actual activity was a 4-min, high-intensity interval activity that uses whole-body actions to complement a storyline. This helps with remembering the learning.
The order of these energizer breaks was randomized and counterbalanced from control to experimental groups with a crossover design for weeks. That reduced any bias of which study design was better (you can’t do a placebo with an activity).

The results were that students made fewer errors during the test following exercise. In supporting the priority of physical activity inclusion within schools, it was found that exercise, or a time efficient and easily implemented physical activity break, can improve selective attention in 9- to 11-year olds (Ma, Le Mare, Gurd, 2015).

In an earlier study with younger students, this same group found that the effects of physical activity were greatest in those students demonstrating the highest rates of off-task behavior on no-activity days.

This data demonstrate that very brief high-intensity bouts of exercise can improve off-task behavior in grade 2 and 4 students, particularly in students with high rates of misbehavior (Ma, Le Mare, Gurd, 2014).

In another study among preschool children, researchers examined the acute effects of a 10-min teacher-implemented classroom-based activity break and the time on-task in a preschool-age population.

This study shows you may improve time on-task productivity after an exercise break for preschoolers. Just use a short bout of physical activity in the classroom, and you’ll see gains, especially in children who are the most off-task.

Simon Says activities have been studied and have been found to contribute to on-task behavior (Pontifex, M. et al. (2012). Children who regularly participated in a Simon Says-type game designed to improve self-regulation – called the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders task – may have better math and early literacy scores.

The study found that the higher academic outcomes associated with the game, which emphasizes careful listening and following instructions, does not just benefit students in the United States, but also benefits children tested in Taiwan, China and South Korea (Wanless, SB, McClelland MM, Tominey S, Acock AC. (2011).

Neuroscience reveals information that other disciplines cannot reveal. For example, we know that exercise is highly correlated with neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells (Eriksson et al. 1998; Pereira et al. 2007).

We know exercise upregulates a critical compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. We also know that neurogenesis is correlated with improved learning and memory. Learning increases the survival of newly generated cells in the hippocampus as long as the learning experience is new, effortful, and successful (Shors, 2014).

While careless policy makers reduce physical activity, many administrators are unaware of the inverse correlations with adolescent depression. It’s scary, but each year one in six teens makes plans for suicide, and roughly one in 12 teens attempts suicide. Yet there is considerable evidence that physical activity can serve as an antidepressant (de Souza Moura AM, et al. 2015).

That’s one reason to know the science, to show everyday, easy-to-influence school factors that regulate neurogenesis and, subsequently, cognition, memory, and mood. Those are the kinds of connections that should be made.

When the studies are well designed, there is strong support for physical activity in schools.

THE SECRET to the WINTER TIME BLUES… So, what is THE one great way to avoid the “wintertime blues?” Join in with your students when you are orchestrating a classroom energizer! When you exercise in class, no worries about doing it at home! 🙂 Plus, you will have less stress, feel more energized and be happier.

Practical Applications

Unfortunately, in education many teachers have erroneously fallen into the “I don’t have time” trap.

Actually, you do have time.

If I gave you a way to get MORE learning PER MINUTE and save at least 10-20 minutes a day, would you start using more physical activity in your class?

I hope so.

Here is the solution to recapture the time that many say they don’t have…

One, remember to get buy-in and make every part of your work relevant (in your student’s mind) before teaching. Otherwise, you’ll have to re-teach it. This reduces your re-teaching time.

Two, get student up and out of their seats often. Otherwise, their energy levels drop and they may lack the right brain chemicals that optimize learning (serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine). Students in tired, unfocused states are terrible learners.

Try each of the following activities. Once you have demonstrated it first, your students will enjoy doing them. Why? They are all fun!


  1. Follow the Leader: When students are in small groups or teams, their group leader will “lead” the rest of the students in their group on a walk around the classroom (to music, of course; use the song “Follow the Leader” by Soca Boys). If the leader claps, everyone else claps. If the leader goes left, everyone on the team goes left. Do this for 45 – 60 seconds.
  2. Cross Laterals: The group leader will “lead” the rest of the students in their group by showing unilateral and cross lateral movements. The rest of the team mirrors the actions of the leader.
  3. Ride my bus/car/train: All students sit in a circle within their group of 4-6. The leader rotates his/her chair so their back is to the group. Then, looking forward, the leader puts up her hands as if on a steering wheel of a bus. You put on fast music. The other students are officially “passengers” on the leader’s wild bus ride. Whatever the “driver” of the bus does, all student passengers follow along. If the bus driver turns a hard right, all student passengers lean hard right. Do this for 45 – 60 seconds.
  4. Play sports: The group leader will start the process by demonstrating a favorite sport. If their sport is baseball, then the leader stands in a crouch, swings at a ball, then “runs to first.” Other students in the group all mimic the leader’s sport. Then the student to the right of leader “plays their favorite sport”. Others mimic that person’s sport, too. Each gets about 30” until all have played every other’s sport. Great fun, participation and variety.
  5. Running, walking, moving. You can have each student do some workout in place while others mimic it. Or, put on music and let each student take a walk around the room. You play clips of 5-7 pieces of varied music and the students have to walk in a way that fits the music. I use music like “Push It” from Salt ‘n Pepa, “Tequila” from the Champs and “Happy” from Pharrell Williams.

Stay active this year and beat the blues. Happy holidays, my friend.

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

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