Ontario class hits gym in search of brain boost

Two southern Ontario school boards are piloting a program called Sparking Life Niagara, which aims to boost students learning power by exercising for 20 minutes every morning before class.

Niagara region hopes exercise regime will help improve its students’ marks

Ten high school boys push themselves through 20 minutes of exercise on treadmills and exercise bikes. Some work up a sweat, while others lounge and crack jokes on the equipment.

Their teacher, Tracy Garratt, doesn’t mind too much. She’s already looking forward to getting them into the classroom.

"Once they've had some physical activity in them, at least for the first 20 minutes they're mine," Garratt says, with a smile.

It’s the third day of school and the third workout for the class, one of two groups taking part in Sparking Life Niagara — a pilot project that aims to boost the students’ learning ability by having them get 20 minutes of intense cardiovascular exercise each morning. About 20 Grade 10 students were selected to take part in the program, but so far only ten — all boys — have shown up.

Garratt says she’s already seeing improvements in the students who have attended the classes.

Teacher Tracy Garratt, left, said she's confident the Sparking Life Niagara students will help her students succeed academically. ((John Rieti/CBC))

"I really feel that all students can benefit from this. My hope and my dream is that every kid in my school and every kid in my district actually gets some activity in the morning," she says.

Programs similar to Sparking Life Niagara have already proven successful in some U.S. and Canadian schools, but there’s keen interest whether it will work at Eastdale. The school is in an area hit hard by the economic recession, and residents have higher-than-average obesity rates and other health issues.

The boys are curious whether it will work, too.

"I think that there is a chance," says 15-year-old Cory Avery. "I’m going to take it because I want to be better in my learning."

Eastdale picked students who were underachieving academically, but who teachers thought would make academic gains in the program. But while students like Avery recognize the potential opportunity of the class, others are already threatening to drop out.

"Many kids felt like they were being … put out there," Avery said.

"Maybe they feel like they’re being labeled, and not many kids want that."

The biggest question at this point in the school year is whether the boys will buy in and really test out the program.