November 4, 2015

Exercising Body and Mind with Darla M. Castelli, Ph.D.

by Daniel Rossi ’16

castelli_dThe physical health issues associated with not getting enough exercise are well known, but what about the mental ones? Darla M. Castelli, Ph.D., teaches physical and health education at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work aims to answer that question.

At the Robert and Augusta P. Finkelstein Memorial Lecture—held on Wednesday, November 4, 2015, in the Thomas Dixon Lovely Ballroom in Adelphi’s Ruth S. Harley University Center—Dr. Castelli outlined America’s problem of inactivity, the negative effects that it can have on the body and mind and a long-term plans to fix those effects. She described some of the common reasons people aren’t getting proper exercise, stating, “We have unsafe neighborhoods. We have places where people cannot go outside because there’s no sidewalk or green space to be active. Technology has manifested a sedentary lifestyle.” Simply stated, “The world has changed,” Dr. Castelli said, and as a result she believes we must rethink health education as a whole.

In schools, children sit in class for hours with only a short 20-minute recess period for physical activity. According to Dr. Castelli, “Schools are a prime place for us to make change,” as they currently don’t place enough emphasis on exercise and healthy living. “We can improve the lives of children when given the time, resources and proper instruction.” She then went deep into the psychology and biology of the brain to explain how we perceive, process and learn information.

What’s often ignored in health education discussions are the mental benefits of exercise. “Individuals who have a higher body mass index, or a lower fitness, are less likely to attend school,” Dr. Castelli explained. She demonstrated that students who live healthier lifestyles and exercise more also attend school on a more frequent basis. In addition, they are more alert and attentive in school. Students who were put on a physical activity regimen performed significantly better on tests that examined their ability to pay attention and manage complicated puzzles and mental games. “They’re more fit, they’re regularly active and they can process information more accurately and faster than children who are inactive,” she said.

Dr. Castelli also provided evidence that exercise can improve the lives of adults. After about age 30, the human mind reaches a peak in certain functions. Dr. Castelli described how “the notion of solving a problem spontaneously goes all downhill from age 30.” But not all hope is lost, she explained. “If you lead a physically active lifestyle, you are more likely to maintain, or stave off, the potential loss.”

Dr. Castelli has worked out a provable system to teach children healthy practices that will stay with them for a long time; Kinetic Kidz, FIT Kids1 and FIT Kids2 are some of the programs that yield such results.

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