The Motivation FactoR

By Dr. Mercola

Research1 has convincingly demonstrated that the more physically active children and teenagers are, the better they do academically. As noted by the authors of a 2012 scientific review:

"Physical activity and sports are generally promoted for their positive effect on children's physical health … There is also a growing body of literature suggesting that physical activity has beneficial effects on several mental health outcomes … In addition ... there is a strong belief that regular participation in physical activity is linked to enhancement of brain function and cognition, thereby positively influencing academic performance."

Several mechanisms that help explain why physical activity benefits cognition have been proposed. For starters, exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to your brain, which in and of itself increases learning speed.2 Exercise also increases levels of norepinephrine and endorphins, which lowers stress and improves mood. Importantly, exercise triggers growth factors that create new nerve cells and enable brain plasticity, thereby facilitating memory and learning. According to the authors of this 2012 review:

"The increasing pressures to improve academic scores often lead to additional instructional time for subjects such as mathematics and language at the cost of time for being physically active … [T]he literature provides inconclusive evidence on the positive longitudinal relationship between physical activity and academic performance. However, there is a strong general belief that this relationship is present, and research in this area is ongoing."

The Motivation Factor

The featured documentary, "The Motivation Factor,"3 investigates these claims, showing how exercise — and particularly physical education (PE) in school — helps motivate kids and young adults to excel in other areas of life, including academically. 

"The knowledge that the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of the nation, is as old as the Western civilization itself. But it is a knowledge which today, in America, we are in danger of forgetting."

This quote is attributed to president-elect John F. Kennedy, given during an interview in December 1960. Unfortunately, his warning went largely unheeded, and today, children and young adults are more sedentary than ever. Not only is this having consequences for physical health, but it's also taking a psychological toll. As noted in the film, exercise has the ability to unite people, to bring them together and form interpersonal bonds. This too plays an important role in a person's ability to succeed in life. 

In the 1800s, one-third of the time spent in school was dedicated to physical exercise. The ancient Greeks spent a full half of their education working on physical fitness. Kennedy, too, was a firm believer in the idea that exercise produced academic excellence and built integrity. As noted in the film, the historical view has been that physical wellness leads to a healthy mind, body and spirit. "Our current state of physical illiteracy leaves us guessing how to become smart, productive and mentally stable," the narrator notes.

Physical Education Is Imperative for Life Success

A consequence of striking PE from the curriculum in American schools has led to the worst education and productivity rankings since the '70s. In addition, despite spending more money on health care than any other country on Earth, the U.S. has the highest rate of mental illness, and both obesity and chronic illness has dramatically risen with each passing decade. 

Throughout the film, you see 50-year-old video clips from PE classes at La Sierra High School in Riverside, California. La Sierra High followed Kennedy's lead, developing one of the most rigorous and progressive daily fitness curricula in the U.S. Long rows of young men looking like they belong in a fitness magazine stream by. It's a far cry from the high school students of today. 

Tony Asaro, part of La Sierra High's class of 1967, describes how his high school training has served him throughout his life. To this day, he runs 3 miles and does his stretches every morning. It keeps him feeling good, both physically and mentally, and keeps him motivated to pursue life with vigor and optimism. Ed Carisoza, class of '61, agrees, saying he's been exercising ever since his high school days. The fitness habits he developed back then stuck with him for life.  

The Importance of Discipline and Physical Achievement  

Research by Harvard Medical School shows that as soon as PE is reinstalled in schools, there's a greater than 80 percent drop in discipline problems within a single semester. This in turn means teachers can focus on teaching rather than policing behavior, and by improving participation and focus, the children learn more and score better on tests. 

Indeed, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that performance in math and science correlates to physical fitness. Eight years ago, ABC News4 reported on a special program being implemented at Naperville Central High School, west of Chicago, where students could take part in a dynamic gym class at the beginning of the day and had access to exercise bikes and balls throughout the day in their classrooms. 

The results were astounding. Those who participated nearly doubled their reading scores, and math scores increased twentyfold. Research has also shown that after 30 minutes on the treadmill, students solve problems up to 10 percent more effectively. The film also points out that lack of PE has had a dramatic impact on crime and incarceration rates. Despite having only 4 percent of the global population, U.S. prisons house 25 percent of the global prisoner population. 

According to experts interviewed in the film, this state of affairs has a lot to do with the fact that youngsters lack direction, discipline and motivation to excel, which they attribute to a lack of physical education and fitness. 

"It helps your ego, your pride and sense of self," Trent Saxton, a chiropractor from the La Sierra High class of '67, says. In short, physical fitness — not just looking good but actually feeling good — has a tremendous impact on your self-esteem and your capacity to view yourself as strong and capable of overcoming challenges and working toward a goal. 

A good PE program teaches not just physical endurance but mental endurance. This is the core message of this film: Physical fitness is the missing piece that can unite us as a society, and allow each person to optimize their intelligence, productivity and mental stability.

The Mind-Body Connection

In researching his book "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain," psychiatrist Dr. John J. Ratey reviewed 1,000 scientific papers on physical fitness and mental performance. "I was amazed at how much we already knew," he says. For example, we know that exercise:

Is the best preventive remedy for psychiatric disorders, heart diseasediabetes and cancer.5 Even your risk for age-related hearing loss is reduced through exercise.6

Helps build a brain that resists shrinkage7 and increases cognitive abilities8 and creativity. Researchers at Stanford University found that taking regular walks can increase creativity up to 60 percent.9,10

Promotes neurogenesis, meaning your brain's ability to adapt and grow new brain cells, regardless of your age. 

Promotes mental health by normalizing insulin resistance and boosting natural "feel good" hormones and neurotransmitters associated with mood control, including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and GABA. 

Boosts memory by improving hippocampal function11,12 and volume13,14 — a finding that may be an important prevention strategy against Alzheimer's disease, the most serious and deadly form of dementia

Increases peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator (PGC-1α), an important metabolic signal that increases mitochondrial biogenesis. The PGC-1α pathway regulates both mitochondrial activity and mitochondrial replication. This is important, as your brain is the most mitochondrially-dense organ in your body


Over 10,000 published studies now show that sitting is an independent risk factor for chronic disease and premature death. In fact, chronic sitting has a mortality rate similar to that of smoking. Yet U.S. schools now force children to remain seated for most of the day. Making matters worse, changes in school furniture are forcing children into extremely harmful postures.

Early school desks were slanted, and extensive research showed a 20-degree slant was ideal for reading and writing. Such desks have since been replaced with horizontal, flat desks, which forces you to hunch over and twist your body into a series of unnatural positions while reading and writing.

The end result is postural deformities, leading to pain and further inhibitions to movement. And, without PE providing restorative movements to counteract the poor posture of sitting hunched over a flat desk all day, the ill effects are likely to become chronic. The widespread use of cellphones and tablets among young children — which also put you into a forward-hunching posture — further exacerbate these problems. 

Physical Movement Forces New Brain Connections

You probably know that the way to keep your brain young and agile is to train it, but brain training programs can only take you so far. One of the most effective ways to train your brain is actually to perform complex physical movements and coordination exercises. The more complex and challenging the movement, the greater the benefits to your brain, forcing new neural connections to be formed.

Practicing with Indian clubs or maces, for example, where you have to move your body in all directions and really focus on performing complicated coordination patterns are excellent examples of this. Martial arts such as karate, muay Thai (Thai boxing) and taekwondo also tax the brain in a beneficial way.

The film also stresses the importance of restorative movement practices, noting that if a single sport is your sole form of exercise, that sport, no matter what it is, will eventually create physical imbalances. What's needed are movements that simply restore your body's natural movement patterns. If you can move well, then you can perform any sport better. You will also be less prone to aches and pains in general.

Another great brain challenger is simply spending time in nature. Walking outdoors challenges your brain to a greater degree than walking on a treadmill indoors because you have to pay greater attention to your surroundings. You have to pay attention to where you place your feet so you don't stumble over a rock or a tree root, for example. Being surrounded by nature also increases your sense of being present in the moment, which has neurological and psychological benefits. 

Fitness Is a Right and a Responsibility 

As noted in the film, physical fitness used to be both a right and a responsibility as a citizen. We have indeed veered far off course as a nation when it comes to physical education. It goes beyond just learning a sport. PE is about building a strong, fully functioning body, and with it a well-functioning mind and a stable spirit that isn't crushed by every adversity.

PE is the one thing that simultaneously addresses all three aspects of being human — body, mind and spirit. When those three aspects are all strong and fit, people are well-equipped to face the world with self-confidence and achieve their dreams. Today, kids don't know what to eat, they don't know how to move, stand or even sit. And, as noted in the film, it's not their fault. They've simply never been taught any of these things, and school is really the best, most logical place for this education to take place. 

How to Get Your Kids Moving

In 1960, JFK issued a challenge to the nation to take fitness seriously, for its individual benefits and for the benefit it can bring to the country as a whole. As JFK said, "A nation is only as strong as its citizens." We're well overdue in answering this call to action, but it's not too late. Wherever you are today, and wherever your children are, you can set a new course for yourself and your family — a course where fitness is a part of your daily life. 

Chances are, your child's school may not have a robust PE program, if it offers it at all. I'd encourage you to communicate with school administrators, and try to get the school to give PE the attention it deserves. After all, it's one of the most cost-effective ways to improve test scores. Aside from that, start taking fitness seriously as a family. Below are some suggestions to help you get started:

Think of it this way: By taking the time to get your kids interested in exercise now, you're giving them a gift that will keep them healthy and happy for the rest of their lives.