The Motivation Factor

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Story at-a-glance -

  • 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
  • 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
  • Research has convincingly demonstrated that the more physically active children and teenagers are, the better they do academically. Research also shows that when physical education is reinstalled in schools, there’s a greater than 80 percent drop in discipline problems within a single semester
  • Sitting is an independent risk factor for chronic disease and premature death, and has a mortality rate similar to that of smoking, yet U.S. schools force children to remain seated for most of the day
  • By using horizontal, flat desks, children’s posture is also forced into a series of unnatural positions while reading and writing, resulting in deformities, pain and further inhibitions to movement

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 disease, diabetes 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.

How Modern Schools Are Crippling Children

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:

  • First, it's imperative to limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV or playing computer and video games, and to replace some of these sedentary activities with exercise. Children need at least 30 to 60 minutes of exercise each day.
  • Encourage your child to take part in physically engaging activities after school and on the weekends. There are plenty to choose from, from sports and dance classes to gymnastics, bike riding and playing tag with friends. Remember, the trick to getting kids interested in exercise at a young age is to keep it fun. Also keep in mind that spontaneous bouts of exercise throughout the day is actually the ideal way of doing it.
  • Like adults, kids also need variety in their exercise routines to reap the greatest rewards, so be sure your child is getting high-intensity interval-type training, strength building exercises, stretching and core-building activities. Also consider less conventional exercises. Battle ropes, Indian clubs, jumping exercises, agility ladder training, BOSU ball training, bodyweight exercises and slacklining are just a few examples.
  • Being a role model by staying active yourself is one of the best ways to motivate and inspire your kids. If your child sees you embracing exercise as a positive and important part of your lifestyle, they will naturally follow suit.
  • Plan physical activities that involve the whole family. Hiking, bike riding, canoeing, swimming and sports are all great options.

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.

About the Director

I believe in bringing quality to my readers, which is why I wanted to share some information about the creator, Doug Orchard, from "The Motivation Factor." We sat down with Orchard to learn a little more about what goes in to making these films. Thank you, Doug, for sharing with us.

What was your inspiration for making this film?

Before I started this film, my chiropractor told me he could no longer provide me with relief and referred me to see a spine surgeon. In addition to my back pain, I had a debilitating case of carpel tunnel that prevented me from filming and editing, and I had a frozen shoulder that kept me out of the gym.

I learned about “restorative arts” as profiled in the film, which was part of classical PE 100 years ago. I learned how to repair myself using those classic (now forgotten) methods without a physician, surgery or drugs. I repaired (for free) my frozen shoulder and carpel tunnel, and avoided spine surgery (and eliminated all back pain), all by what you’ll see in this film.

That saved my insurance company a fortune, but it also eliminated my depression! It transformed my life. I saw my productivity double, and my relationship and interest in others improved dramatically. I wondered, “What if everyone did this? What would our society be like?”

We are in a state of physical illiteracy as a society. The root cause to many of our problems including a lack of unity, out-of-control health care costs, mental health problems and ballooning national debt stem from the lack of classical physical education.

Physical education wasn’t about sports back then. it was lifetime fitness and it included education on restorative arts. They simply did it better 100 years ago than we do today. It’s shocking to see how far we have fallen.

I’ve watched with horror how so many of the youth in inner city schools are destined to become another statistic. I see that this film’s message could solve that particular problem, and so many others, all without legislation. All it takes is the right education, and this documentary could set it in motion. I believe we can transform our society with the message of this movie.

What was your favorite part of making this film?

Filming the kids at Prescott Middle School in Modesto, California. They are the only school still following this program. I interviewed a young girl there who was homeless (living in a car with her mom and two sisters). She had been bullied in elementary school but not in this middle school. I asked her why, and she said, “PE.”

At this school, they followed a classical physical education model where they structured the entire class as a team, and in a real team, labels like “race” or “homeless” take a back seat. The kids who lived in the country club accepted her as an equal. There was no bullying in the school.

The boys and girls all worked together. These kids represented the entire social-economic gamut of our society and yet were completely unified. They learned it in PE. I’m not sure I would have believed it if I wasn’t there filming it. As I drove away that night I thought, “These kids think differently than the rest of our society. Their current situation doesn’t determine what they are going to become. They don’t accept labels, and they are learning it all in PE.”

Where do the proceeds to your film go?

We can’t change our society without a return to what used to be taught in classical physical education. One hundred percent of the film’s proceeds thus far have gone to help make that happen again. The film raised $40,000 in crowdfunding and all of those proceeds and all film sales thus far have gone toward hard costs associated with the film creation, as well as promoting the film’s message to politicians, schools and communities.

The film had a combined production cost of time and expense of over $500,000 and it was primarily funded by the filmmaker. Proceeds go toward paying for those costs and promoting the message moving forward, as well as creating additional material on this topic. I have turned down two offers to sell the film since it won the festivals.

I turned down $500,000 from a corporation that wanted to fund the film because they wanted to use it to sell services instead of initiate the change our society needs. This is about getting it to happen again, and I hope people use the film to initiate meaningful change in their life, their school, their company or their retirement community. I’m reaching out to Dr. Mercola’s community to help

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