Welcome to the Revolution
A Case Study on Exercise and the Brain
ON A SLIGHT swell of land west of Chicago stands a brick building,
Naperville Central High School, which harbors in its basement a
low-ceilinged, windowless room crowded with treadmills and stationary
bikes. The old cafeteria-its capacity long dwarfed by enrollment
numbers-now serves as the school's "cardio room." It is 7:10 a.m., and
for the small band of newly minted freshmen lounging half asleep on the
exercise equipment, that means it's time for gym.
A trim young physical education teacher named Neil Duncan lays out the
morning's assignment: "OK, once you're done with your warm-up, we're
going to head out to the track and run the mile," he says,
presenting a black satchel full of chest straps and digital
watches-heart rate monitors of the type used by avid athletes to gauge
their physical exertion. "Every time you go around the track, hit the
red button. What that's going to do-it's going to give you a split. It's
going to tell you, this is how fast I did my first lap, second lap,
third lap. On the fourth and final lap-which will be just as fast if you
do it right-" he says, pausing to survey his sleepy charges, "you hit
the blue button, OK? And that'll stop your watch. Your goal is-well, to
try to run your fastest mile. Last but not least, your average heart
rate should be above 185."
Filing past Mr. Duncan, the freshmen lumber upstairs, push through a set
of heavy metal doors, and in scattered groups they hit the track under
the mottled skies of a crisp October morning. Perfect conditions for a
This is not good old gym class. This is Zero Hour PE, the latest in a
long line of educational experiments conducted by a group of maverick
physical education teachers who have turned the nineteen thousand
students in Naperville District 203 into the fittest in the nation-and
also some of the smartest. (The name of the class refers to its
scheduled time before first period.) The objective of Zero Hour is to
determine whether working out before school gives these kids a boost in
reading ability and in the rest of their subjects.
The notion that it might is supported by emerging research showing that
physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells
to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must
be made; they reflect the brain's fundamental ability to adapt to
challenges. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the
clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus,
creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able
to learn. Aerobic activity has a dramatic effect on adaptation,
regulating systems that might be out of balance and optimizing those
that are not-it's an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to reach
his or her full potential.
Out at the track, the freckled and bespectacled Mr. Duncan supervises as
his students run their laps.
"My watch isn't reading," says one of the boys as he jogs past.
"Red button," shouts Duncan. "Hit the red button! At the end, hit the
Two girls named Michelle and Krissy pass by, shuffling along side by
A kid with unlaced skateboarding shoes finishes his laps and turns in
his watch. His time reads eight minutes, thirty seconds.
Next comes a husky boy in baggy shorts.
"Bring it on in, Doug," Duncan says. "What'd you get?"
When Michelle and Krissy finally saunter over, Duncan asks for their
times, but Michelle's watch is still running. Apparently, she didn't hit
the blue button. Krissy did, though, and their times are the same. She
holds up her wrist for Duncan. "Ten twelve," he says, noting the time on
his clipboard. What he doesn't say is "It looked like you two were
really loafing around out there!"
The fact is, they weren't. When Duncan downloads Michelle's monitor,
he'll find that her average heart rate during her ten-minute mile was
191, a serious workout for even a trained athlete. She gets an A for the
The kids in Zero Hour, hearty volunteers from a group of freshmen
required to take a literacy class to bring their reading comprehension
up to par, work out at a higher intensity than Central's other PE
students. They're required to stay between 80 and 90 percent of their
maximum heart rate. "What we're really doing is trying to get them
prepared to learn, through rigorous exercise," says Duncan. "Basically,
we're getting them to that state of heightened awareness and then
sending them off to class."
How do they feel about being Mr. Duncan's guinea pigs? "I guess it's
OK," says Michelle. "Besides getting up early and being all sweaty and
gross, I'm more awake during the day. I mean, I was cranky all the time
Beyond improving her mood, it will turn out, Michelle is also doing much
better with her reading. And so are her Zero Hour classmates: at the end
of the semester, they'll show a 17 percent improvement in reading and
comprehension, compared with a 10.7 percent improvement among the other
literacy students who opted to sleep in and take standard phys ed.
The administration is so impressed that it incorporates Zero Hour into
the high school curriculum as a first-period literacy class called
Learning Readiness PE. And the experiment continues. The literacy
students are split into two classes: one second period, when they're
still feeling the effects of the exercise, and one eighth period. As
expected, the second- period literacy class performs best. The strategy
spreads beyond freshmen who need to boost their reading scores, and
guidance counselors begin suggesting that all students schedule their
hardest subjects immediately after gym, to capitalize on the beneficial
effects of exercise.
It's a truly revolutionary concept from which we can all learn.
Zero Hour grew out of Naperville District 203's unique approach to
physical education, which has gained national attention and become the
model for a type of gym class that I suspect would be unrecognizable to
any adult reading this. No getting nailed in dodgeball, no flunking for
not showering, no living in fear of being the last kid picked.
The essence of physical education in Naperville 203 is teaching fitness
instead of sports. The underlying philosophy is that if physical
education class can be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain
their own health and fitness, then the lessons they learn will serve
them for life. And probably a longer and happier life at that. What's
being taught, really, is a lifestyle. The students are developing
healthy habits, skills, and a sense of fun, along with a knowledge of
how their bodies work. Naperville's gym teachers are opening up new
vistas for their students by exposing them to such a wide range of
activities that they can't help but find something they enjoy. They're
getting kids hooked on moving instead of sitting in front of the
television. This couldn't be more important, particularly since
statistics show that children who exercise regularly are likely to do
the same as adults.
But it's the impact of the fitness-based approach on the kids while
they're still in school that initially grabbed my attention. The New PE
curriculum has been in place for seventeen years now, and its effects
have shown up in some unexpected places-namely, the classroom.
It's no coincidence that, academically, the district consistently ranks
among the state's top ten, even though the amount of money it spends on
each pupil-considered by educators to be a clear predictor of success-is
notably lower than other top-tier Illinois public schools. Naperville
203 includes fourteen elementary schools, five junior highs, and two
high schools. For the sake of comparison, let's look at Naperville
Central High School, where Zero Hour began. Its per- pupil operating
expense in 2005 was $8,939 versus $15,403 at Evanston's New Trier High
School. New Trier kids scored on average two points higher on their ACT
college entrance exams (26.8), but they fared worse than Central's kids
on a composite of mandatory state tests, which are taken by every
student, not just those applying to college. And Central's composite ACT
score for the graduating class of 2005 was 24.8, well above the state
average of 20.1.
Those exams aren't nearly as telling as the Trends in International
Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a test designed to compare
students' knowledge levels from different countries in two key subject
areas. This is the exam cited by New York Times editorialist Thomas
Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, when he laments that students in
places like Singapore are "eating our lunch." The education gap between
the United States and Asia is widening, Friedman points out. Whereas in
some Asian countries nearly half of the students score in the top tier,
only 7 percent of U.S. students hit that mark.
TIMSS has been administered every four years since 1995. The 1999
edition included 230,000 students from thirty-eight countries, 59,000 of
whom were from the United States. While New Trier and eighteen other
schools along Chicago's wealthy North Shore formed a consortium to take
the TIMSS (thereby masking individual schools' performance), Naperville
203 signed up on its own to get an international benchmark of its
students' performance. Some 97 percent of its eighth graders took the
test-not merely the best and the brightest. How did they stack up? On
the science section of the TIMSS, Naperville's students finished first,
just ahead of Singapore, and then the North Shore consortium. Number one
in the world. On the math section, Naperville scored sixth, behind only
Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.
As a whole, U.S. students ranked eighteenth in science and nineteenth in
math, with districts from Jersey City and Miami scoring dead last in
science and math, respectively. "We have huge discrepancies among our
school districts in the United States," says Ina Mullis, who is a
codirector of TIMSS. "It's a good thing that we've at least got some
Napervilles-it shows that it can be done."
I won't go so far as to say that Naperville's kids are brilliant
specifically because they participate in an unusual physical education
program. There are many factors that inform academic achievement. To be
sure, Naperville 203 is a demographically advantaged school district: 83
percent white, with only 2.6 percent in the low income range, compared
with 40 percent in that range for Illinois as a whole. Its two high
schools boast a 97 percent graduation rate. And the town's major
employers are science-centric companies such as Argonne, Fermilab, and
Lucent Technologies, which suggests that the parents of many Naperville
kids are highly educated. The deck-in terms of both environment and
genetics-is stacked in Naperville's favor.
On the other hand, when we look at Naperville, two factors really stand
out: its unusual brand of physical education and its test scores. The
correlation is simply too intriguing to dismiss, and I couldn't resist
visiting Naperville to see for myself what was happening there. I've
long been aware of the TIMSS test and how it points to the failings of
public education in this country. Yet the Naperville 203 kids aced the
test. Why? It's not as if Naperville is the only wealthy suburb in the
country with intelligent, educated parents. And in poor districts where
Naperville- style PE has taken root, such as Titusville, Pennsylvania
(which I'll discuss later), test scores have improved measurably. My
conviction, and my attraction to Naperville, is that its focus on
fitness plays a pivotal role in its students' academic achievements.
THE NEW PE
The Naperville revolution started, as such things often do, with equal
parts idealism and self-preservation. A visionary junior high physical
education teacher named Phil Lawler got the movement off the ground
after he came across a newspaper article in 1990 reporting that the
health of U.S. children was declining.
"It said the reason they weren't healthy was that they weren't very
active," recalls Lawler, a tall man in his fifties, with rimless
glasses, who dresses in khakis and white sneakers. "These days everybody
knows we have an obesity epidemic," he continues. "But pick up a paper
seventeen years ago and that kind of article was unusual. We said, We
have these kids every day; shouldn't we be able to affect their health?
If this is our business, I thought, we're going bankrupt."
He already felt like his profession received no respect; schools had
started cutting phys ed from the curriculum, and now this. A former
college baseball pitcher who missed out on the majors, Lawler is a
sincere salesman and a natural leader who became a gym teacher to stay
close to sports. In addition to teaching PE at District 203's Madison
Junior High, he coached Naperville Central's baseball team and served as
the district coordinator for PE, but even in these respectable posts,
sometimes he was embarrassed to admit what he did for a living. Part of
what he saw in that article was an opportunity-a chance to make his job
When Lawler and his staff at Madison took a close look at what was
happening in gym, they saw a lot of inactivity. It's the nature of team
sports: waiting for a turn at bat, waiting for the center's snap,
waiting for the soccer ball to come your way. Most of the time, most of
the players just stood around. So Lawler decided to shift the focus to
cardiovascular fitness, and he instituted a radical new feature to the
curriculum. Once a week in gym class, the kids would run the mile. Every
single week! His decision met with groans from students, complaints from
parents, and notes from doctors.
He was undeterred, yet he quickly recognized that the grading scale
discouraged the slowest runners. To offer nonathletes a shot at good
marks, the department bought a couple of Schwinn Airdyne bikes and
allowed students to earn extra credit. They could come in on their own
time and ride five miles to raise their grades. "So any kid who wanted
to get an A could get an A if he worked for it," Lawler explains.
"Somewhere in this process, we got into personal bests. Anytime you got
a personal best, no matter what it was, you moved up a letter grade."
And this led to the founding principle of the approach he dubbed the New
PE: Students would be assessed on effort rather than skill. You didn't
have to be a natural athlete to do well in gym.
But how does one judge the individual effort of forty kids at a time?
Lawler found his answer at a physical education conference he organized
every spring. He worked hard to turn the event into an exchange of fresh
ideas and technologies, and to encourage attendance he talked the
vendors into donating door prizes. Each year at the beginning of the
conference, he would push a towel cart through the aisles, collecting
bats and balls and other sporting goods. Cast in among the bounty one
year was a newfangled heart rate monitor, which at the time was worth
hundreds of dollars. He couldn't help himself; he stole it for the
revolution. "I saw that son of a buck," he freely admits, "and I said,
That's a door prize for Madison Junior High!"
During the weekly mile, he tested the device on a sixth-grade girl who
was thin but not the least bit athletic. When Lawler downloaded her
stats, he couldn't believe what he found. "Her average heart rate was
187!" he exclaims. As an eleven-year-old, her maximum heart rate would
have been roughly 209, meaning she was plugging away pretty close to
full tilt. "When she crossed the finish line, she went up to 207,"
Lawler continues. "Ding, ding, ding! I said, You gotta be kidding me!
Normally, I would have gone to that girl and said, You need to get your
ass in gear, little lady! It was really that moment that caused dramatic
changes in our overall program. The heart rate monitors were a
springboard for everything. I started thinking back to all the kids we
must have turned off to exercise because we weren't able to give them
credit. I didn't have an athlete in class who knew how to work as hard
as that little girl."
He realized that being fast didn't necessarily have anything to do with
One of Lawler's favorite statistics is that less than 3 percent of
adults over the age of twenty-four stay in shape through playing team
sports, and this underscores the failings of traditional gym class. But
he knew he couldn't have the students run the mile every day, so he set
up a program of what they have termed " small-sided
sports"-three-on-three basketball or four-on-four soccer-where the
students are constantly moving. "We still play sports," Lawler says. "We
just do them within a fitness model." Instead of being tested on such
trivia as the dimensions of a regulation volleyball court, Naperville's
gym students are graded on how much time they spend in their target
heart rate zones during any given activity.
Excerpted from "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain" by John J. Ratey. Copyright © 2008 by John J. Ratey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.