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Hooray Or Hooey?

Brain gym is an exercise program designed to enhance learning and overcome learning challenges. The founders built it on the principle that learning is directly influenced by the body’s physical state and thus Brain Gym’s activities are all geared towards activating the brain through physical exercises for stimulating learning.
There are 26 Brain Gym activities and each of them takes about 1 minute to perform. Brain Gym was founded by educator Paul Dennison who has been working on earlier versions of Brain Gym since the 1980s. Brain Gym is widely distributed all over the world, including in state schools in the US, Canada and the UK.

The “learning through movement” Brain Gym is designed to achieve the following results according to Brain Gym’s website:

  • promote play and the joy of learning
  • draw out and honor innate intelligence
  • build awareness regarding the value of movement in daily life
  • emphasize the ability to notice and respond to movement-based needs
  • encourage self-responsibility
  • leave each participant appreciated and valued
  • empower each participant to better take charge of his own learning
  • encourage creativity and self expression
  • inspire an appreciation of music, physical education and the fine arts

Some of brain Gym’s exercises include the following:

Drinking of water before any lessons – to “grease the wheel” and to stimulate activity in the brain. Brain Gym stresses the brain’s need for hydration specifically coming from water.

Lazy 8s—involves staring at a fixed point at eye level then having the eye follow a figure 8 (infinity symbol) drawn by the fingers without any movement from the neck. This exercise is supposed to improve visual attention and also improve the mobility of the eyes that are needed for reading.

Cross Crawl—improves the coordination between the right and left brain hemispheres which is supposed to be good for writing, spelling, reading, listening and comprehension. This move can be done while standing or sitting and it involves touching the left hand to the right knee then the right hand to the left knee repetitively as if marching.

Thinking caps—this is supposed to improve short term memory, be useful in spelling, listening and abstract ability. This involves massaging the earlobes using the thumb and index finger.

Although Brain Gym is widely used worldwide, most of the scientific community do not believe in its efficacy. It has received a lot of criticism in that there is no scientific evidence that these exercises improves learning and there are also no peer reviewed clinical trials and studies on the subject of Brain Gym. Because of this, many scientists call the Brain Gym claims “pseudo scientific”.

Columnist Ben Goldacre from The Guardian is one of the staunchest critics of Brain Gym, saying: “Just to reiterate, my problem is not with stopping class to do a bit of exercise: my problem is with bonkers made up pseudoscience being peddled to children. If you are a teacher who manages to do the exercises without the pseudoscience, then well done to you (although I’m puzzled as to why you’d bother with Brain Gym instead of any other kind of exercise break).”