“Mens sana in corpore sano” - “Healthy body, healthy mind”. This world famous quotation by Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, a Roman orator and poet, shows that 2000 years ago people had already made the connection between the body’s health and that of the mind. Today, the neurosciences are examining the nature of this connection and its potential application to individual and societal needs. The Transfer Center for Neuroscience and Learning in Ulm is one of the research institutions investigating this issue. To this purpose, the Center’s researchers are working on several projects concerning physical activity and cognitive functions.
Nowadays, there is growing scientific evidence that physical activity not only keeps the body healthy, but also affects the mind. According to various studies, physical activity affects brain structures and brain chemicals and thus influences higher cognitive processes like attention, learning and memory. Specifically, studies have shown that physical activity has a positive effect on executive processes, i.e. on processes concerning attention, planning, decision making, coping with stress, correcting mistakes – all processes that are highly relevant for daily life, and are also required at school. Other studies have found that physical activity stimulates the growth of cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in learning. It is therefore logical to conclude that physical activity might contribute to an optimisation of memory performance. Furthermore, studies have found that physical activity enhances the concentration of certain neurotransmitters and thereby acts positively on general well-being, motivation and self-consciousness.
On the basis of these findings, Transfer Center researchers will examine whether or not endurance training improves students’ executive functions. This hypothesis will be tested experimentally in the laboratory, as well as in field studies. In the laboratory, researchers will investigate the effects of a standardised physical endurance stressor on students’ cognitive performance. First, students will take part in a bike ergonometry test. Following this, the students’ attention and concentration will be measured with psychological tests. At the same time, field studies will examine how physical activity influences students’ attention and concentration at school. For this, the Transfer Center has planned four studies: (1) daily sports lessons, (2) runner’s training (3) the school yard and (4) classes involving physical activity. The first study will investigate the influence of a daily lesson of physical education on the students’ concentration and attention in the subsequent lesson. The second study will examine the effect of endurance training on attention and concentration, as well as on memory processes. The endurance training will consist of running for half an hour, three times a week, over a period of six weeks. The third and the fourth study will, respectively, investigate how activity in the school yard, which “invites” students to be physically active, and how classes involving physical activity might influence executive functions, as well as general well-being and motivation in school.