Health & Learning

These articles all relate to health & learning.

Brain Health, Part One: Proper Feeding & Care

by Dahlia Miller
November 2009

Remember the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, and how obsessed he was with getting a brain? Sometimes I wonder what the scarecrow was like after he was told that he had a brain – I bet he was a real health nut: reading labels and exercising, and I bet he stretched his brain a lot to expand its flexibility.

The human brain is the finest machine in the universe. No computer comes anywhere close to its precision and potential. In fact, the number of possible neuronal connections in the human brain is 10 followed by a million zeros. (In comparison, the number of known particles in the universe is 10 followed by seventy-nine zeros.) The potential we have inside us is amazing!

If we’re already in possession of the most intricate information-processor in the universe, let’s find out how to use it and care for it.

Over the next two articles, we’ll present a mini-owner’s manual for the brain.

Next month we’ll look at techniques for expanding creativity and memory. For now, we’ll start with nutrition and health. After all, you’ve got only one brain to last your entire life. Let’s look at how to keep it happy and healthy.

A Few Facts about the Brain:

  • The average adult brain weighs about 3 pounds.
  • It is 70-75% water.
  • It uses about 20-30% of the body’s energy (when the body is at rest).
  • An active, learning brain requires more energy than a physically passive one.
  • The brain looks a lot like a walnut and has several areas and parts responsible for different things (like: senses, thought, movement, learning, balance, and information processing, to name a few).
  • The brain has a very limited ability to store energy. Energy (mostly in the form of glucose) is brought to the brain by the blood.
  • The brain prefers to receive a steady supply of energy and responds poorly to fluctuations in blood-sugar.
  • A constant supply of fresh oxygen is required by the brain to function and to maintain adequate levels of concentration.

Some Well Documented Brain Drainers:
Sugar, junk foods, additives, caffeine, highly processed foods, artificial sweeteners, pop, artificial colours, alcohol (which kills brain cells), and nicotine (which constricts the capillaries thereby limiting the supply of blood/oxygen to the brain)

Breakfast is well-known to be the most important meal of the day. It replenishes brain nutrients and blood sugar levels that are lost during the night. Since the brain prefers to maintain a steady supply of energy, skipping breakfast, or eating a fatty or sugary breakfast, has some very negative impacts on metabolism, concentration, memory, and mood.

Two studies proving the importance of breakfast:

  • Elementary students improved academic performance and had fewer behavioral problems after participating in a breakfast program.
  • A doctor in Japan did some clinical research on the correlation between productivity and breakfast; he found that all the students in medical school who didn’t do well academically and all the graduates who hadn’t received licenses for medical practice did not have the habit of eating breakfast.

Essential Fatty Acids:
Neurons in the brain carry messages through an electro-chemical process. These neurons have a very high concentration of omega-3 fats. Even though the brain needs lots of water, fat, oxygen and other nutrients, it doesn’t produce any of them itself (in fact the body doesn’t either). So the health of our bodies and brains are completely dependent on what we feed them (as well as how much exercise and sleep we get, and the attitudes we focus on).

When there are enough omega-3 fats in the diet, the brain is fluid and flexible. Without enough omega-3s, or with too many omega-6 fats or too much cholesterol, the cell membranes in our brain become stiff and hard, making it hard for us to concentrate, to memorize and to even remain calm, happy, and open to new things.

Some sources of Omega-3 oils:

  • Walnuts, eggs, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, soybeans, fish. Perhaps the easiest way to be sure to get enough omega-3s is to add raw flaxseed oil to your smoothies, rice or veggies.

The brain needs fuel, the higher quality the better. As you know, the brain’s only source for vitamins is the food you put into your mouth. Eating well and taking high-quality vitamin and mineral supplements is integral to good brain health. Eat a rainbow of foods (red raspberries, green broccoli, yellow bananas, blueberries, orange peaches, etc.) and you’ll have a broader base of nutrients.

Whole, organic (vegetarian) foods are the highest quality fuels we can eat. Our bodies don’t easily process pesticides, additives, steroids, antibiotics, or artificial colours and flavours. Basically, the closer the food is to its original form, the easier it will be for your body to extract the nutrients it needs.

Some food sources of vitamins:

  • Vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, eggs, brown rice, tofu, beans, molasses, parsley, dairy, fish

Since the brain is largely water, without water it doesn’t think or concentrate easily. Did you know that by the time you feel thirsty, your body is already two cups depleted of water? Keep yourself hydrated and be wary of water stealers (diuretics) like caffeine. (By the way, headaches are often caused by water depletion.)

Exercise promotes blood flow to the brain, supplying nerve cells with more oxygen and nutrients. Regular aerobic exercise also helps you sleep better and reduces stress, both of which have positive impacts on the brain’s ability to function.

One study of 100 sedentary adults found that those who walked vigorously three times per week outperformed adults who only did stretching and toning exercises by 25% in computer tests of mental
reaction times and accuracy. Just getting more blood to the brain seems to have a positive impact on the brain’s functioning.

You can enhance brain function simply by eating well and developing healthy
habits. What easier way could there be to get smarter, more creative and better able to concentrate?

“Oh God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!”
William Shakespeare

Brain Health, Part Two: Building Flexibility and Memory

by Dahlia Miller
December 2009

The brain is a machine unlike any other. The full extent of its abilities has not yet been measured. There is much that we don’t know about the human brain (like exactly where and how the brain stores and retrieves information). But, we do know some things about the brain, and what we know is pretty darned interesting.

This article is the second in our brain series. Here we’ll explore a few different aspects of brain health and offer some exercises to help boost memory and creativity.

Just like the body, our brain needs regular exercise to stay fit and healthy. Our brain has five main cognitive functions: attention, memory, language, visual and spatial acuity, and reasoning. We can improve the ease and speed of these cognitive skills by stimulating our brain as often as possible.


Plastic can be flexible or inflexible; the term neuroplasticity generally refers to the degree to which our brains can flex.

How flexible is your brain? How quickly can you answer skill-testing questions, learn new skills, draw connections between seemingly-unconnected topics, and think outside the box? This is the neuroplasticity of your brain.

We know that the brain is full of neurons and that when the brain thinks, neurons communicate in some kind of electro-chemical process. So, thinking is sort of like a text or email sent between people. To put it simply, the more different connections that are made between neurons, the more neuroplasticity your brain will have.

The brain thrives on stimulation and novelty. Our brains love new things and become bored and complacent by what they are familiar with. The brain easily falls into ruts and doesn’t expand unless it’s made to. This is habituation and it is death to creativity and memory – it actually leads to a stiffening of neuronal connections.

To exercise your brain:

  • do short worksheets of rapid calculations (fast, easy math problems or Suduko games, for example). There is more blood flow to the brain when it is working vigorously.
  • read aloud to stimulate the brain across both hemispheres
  • challenge yourself to learn new skills, languages, or musical instruments
  • write a list of 50-100 questions that you have about your life and the world around you, look at the major themes in your questions, choose one or two, then go find some answers for yourself. Really investigate.

Shuffling and re-organizing things that are already stored in our memory keeps them fresher and more alive (then we can have them at our fingertips and use them in innovative ways). Breaking down what we know and putting it together again in new ways, we counteract the tendency to become complacent about our surroundings.

  • group and re-group what you already know. For example, how many words do you know that start with “re-”, “contra-” or “de-”, or that end in “-diction” or “-ject”?
  • write facts or vocabulary on index cards then throw the index cards in the air and see how they land on the floor. Can you create new connections between ideas with this new arrangement?
  • investigate what is around you to see how things are connected (emotionally, physically, historically, economically, socially, etc.).

Attention and Working Memory

So many things are flashing before our senses in every moment. It would be impossible to pay attention to all of them, or even most of them. So, our brains select some of the sensory input to attend to. What we focus on largely depends on how we have conditioned our brains – this is like how happy people see and remember sunshine and depressed people see and remember puddles.

Anyway, the point is twofold. First, we can expand our ability to notice our environment through practice. Second, in order for something to even have a chance of making it into our long term memory, we need first to pay attention to it.

To boost attention & working memory:

  • study a list of random words for 1 minute then write down as many as you can remember
  • look through a randomly-shuffled deck of cards and remember the order of as many cards as you can in 5
  • stop and notice what you see, hear, smell, and feel
  • record your observations about the world
  • close your eyes and create a mental image of what is around you right now. Be as specific as possible about colours, shapes, textures, spatial relationships. Can you “zoom in” in your mind on something that is around you and see it in greater detail (like a leaf on a tree outside your window)?
  • Stroop tests, like the one below, challenge us to increase our attention and processing speed. Time yourself and read off the colours of the words below (not the words).



Exercise the Spine

The spinal canal carries nutrients to your brain and neuronal impulses from your brain. Keeping the spine flexible allows this information highway to flow smoothly and effectively.

To promote brain and spine health:

  • do exercises that balance both sides of the body to stimulate both brain hemispheres
  • practice raising one knee and balancing on one foot
  • do Qi Gong or Tai Chi to boost spinal flexibility and promote calm


Stress and nervousness stimulate fight- or-flight responses from the body. This inhibits higher cognitive function (and the immune system). Basically, if you are stressed out, you won’t be able to access all of your brain power. (Note: This is of particular importance to students. If you are too nervous, you won’t physically be able to do well on tests that involve higher cognitive functioning.) If stress-related hormones (i.e. cortisol) are activated very regularly, they begin to cause neuron

To relax:

  • practice controlled breathing exercises
  • meditate or do yoga
  • use biofeedback techniques to help reduce stress levels and to increase the brain’s ability to pay attention
  • Play music or sing with others. Music enhances the brain’s receptivity to learning and helps to strengthen and maintain cognitive skills.

Move It or Lose It: How Exercise Boosts Creativity and Vitality

by Dahlia Miller
March 2010

“Nothing happens until something moves.”
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

We all know being fit is good for us, right? Well it turns out that exercise is critical not only for the health of our bodies, but for the health of our minds as well. By introducing variation into the ways we think and move, we discover new ideas and solutions. This article offers tips on how we can build both vitality and creativity through exercise.

Exercise is good for our brains. According to Anat Baniel in Moving Into Life, “Even with moderate athletic activity, or regular daily exercise, new brain cells start branching out, sprouting new neurons and establishing new connections with other groups of brain cells.” (p.17)

Some Obvious Benefits of Exercise:

Aerobic exercise (with increased heart rate and breathing):

  • Improves the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to all the cells in the body (and provides fresh oxygen to the brain)
  • Strengthens heart and lungs
  • Builds bones
  • Aids digestion – helping the body to make best use of the vitamins and minerals that you are eating

Strengthening exercise:

  • Builds muscle and bone mass
  • Tones muscles

Stretching exercise:

  • Increases flexibility

Some Not-So-Obvious Benefits of Exercise:

  • Increases self esteem
  • Reduces stress
  • Helps prevent anxiety
  • Boosts the brain’s rate of neuro-genesis (the rate at which new cells in the brain are generated)
  • Enhances sleep
  • Improves balance through core stability
  • Enhances moods (through release of endorphins)
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Decreases risk of diabetes
  • Helps you to feel good about your body
  • Decreases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer later in life
  • Boosts immune system
  • Helps you to learn new skills
  • Improves speed, balance, agility and coordination
  • Builds a sense of accomplishment

While exercise has numerous proven benefits, just exercising isn’t enough. We need to move with attention if we want to experience all the possible benefits from fitness. The brain craves new information (boredom, by the way, is a sign that our brain is lacking new stimuli).

“The more habitual our everyday movements, the less we are able to satisfy the brain’s need for growth. As we introduce new patterns of movement, combined with attention, our brains begin making thousands, millions, and even billions of new connections. These changes quickly translate into thinking that is clearer, movement that is easier, pain that is reduced or eliminated, and action that is more successful.” (Baniel, p.18)

So, if we challenge our bodies to move in new ways, and pay attention as we’re
doing it, life can become more interesting and exciting. When we continue to keep active, curious, and creative, our brains continue to grow and create possibilities for us.

To get out there more, choose fitness activities that sound fun and exciting to you.

Common Fitness Activities:

  • Fitness classes (pilates, yoga, kickboxing)
  • Frisbee
  • Free play
  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Running
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming/water sports
  • Racquet sports
  • Rock climbing
  • Dancing
  • Skating
  • Outdoor sports (hiking, mountain biking, geo-caching)

Common Sense Exercise Caveats:

  • Do proper warm up stretches and cool downs to avoid injury
  • Wear proper shoes, clothing, and protective gear
  • Learn proper techniques for safety
  • Use your common sense and play safely
  • Drink lots of liquid
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet to sustain your energy level

Some Not-So-Obvious Caveats:

  • Check with your physician before beginning a new regimine of exercise, especially if you have underlying medical problems. Doctors are handy and can tell you, for example, if you need to add weight to your frame before starting a sport (like football).
  • Energy drinks often contain caffeine or ephedra, both substances which can over-stimulate the heart and leave you at risk if you then get your heart pumping through exercise.

Building Self-Motivation for Exercise:

  • Choose fun activities for exercise
  • Keep an exercise journal – set goals; set target dates for reaching these goals; check in to see if the goals have been reached and why or why not
  • Consider what sports/activities you’ve always wanted to try – what’s stopping you from trying them?
  • Track changes you notice in strength, endurance, flexibility
  • Track yourself with a pedometer
  • If you are not in good physical shape currently, start with 10 minutes and build to 20-30 minutes for each time exercising

Motivation Tips for Parents

  • Offer praise and support
  • Get kids off the TV by showing the listings and asking them to highlight the shows they want (limit TV & computer use to 1-2 hours per day); turn the TV or computer on when it’s time to use it and off when the time is up
  • Have fun activity equipment on hand: skipping ropes, balls, kites, badminton racquets, frisbees, hula hoops, roller blades, etc.
  • Suggest some sneaky exercises: raking, lawn mowing, shopping, dog walking, shoveling snow, walking to school
  • Keep an Activity Tracking Chart – star or sticker for each day engaging in an activity; set a goal; reward when the goal is reached
  • Make fitness a family affair: take a golf lesson together, go to the swimming pool, go on a group kayak outing, play touch football
  • Try new activities together: archery, fencing, juggling, curling, rock climbing
  • Model an active lifestyle
  • Remember you are trying to develop your child’s lifetime love of exercise, not to get him or her on a national team
  • Keep in mind that interest builds as skills improve and students are praised for their efforts

“Combine the body, the mind and the heart. And to keep them in parallel vigor one must exercise, study and love.”
Karl von Bonstetten (1745-1832) Swiss writer

Move Into Life. Baniel, Anat. 2009. Harmony Books: New York.

Music and Learning

September 2009

This first newsletter of the school year is an interview with Bonnie Davison of “Singing English Education” and Doug Paterson of “The Harmonious Family Choir”. Bonnie and Doug are both former teachers who now incorporate music into the teaching and group work that they do. We had a lively discussion about some benefits of music for students; links between music and learning; and ideas for teaching and connecting with students through music.

Benefits of Music (for Students)

Doug: Kids want to express themselves – they have such a wonderful time when they are singing and dancing.

Bonnie: We do a disservice to say only music teachers can do music. We don’t have to have a good voice to sing from the heart.

D: There are few activities where multi-age groups can be together. With music everyone gets to be successful and everyone gets to find their voice.

B: People ask me how to get students involved in music. I recommend situations where students can be in groups and working together – having fun. Once we get rid of being afraid to move, we can be ourselves easily. And singing is one of the quickest ways to connect with teens; studies have shown this.

D: Everyone wants to be seen and everyone wants to be heard. Touch on the dance floor builds trust and community. Everyone finishes with a smile on their face, because they’ve made contact with each other.

B: We can teach kids through movement. Music games and dancing can help students learn to touch appropriately – children are generally taught to keep their hands to themselves – they don’t learn to know their own bodies and their space and explore that. Music games teach kids to learn how to have control over their bodies and to interact.

B: It’s so important to learn to be comfortable in our own bodies. For teens – this is crucial. When kids are exploring music and movement they’re more in contact with themselves and their confidence. I feel our generation is missing out on dancing together. With music and dance we can all have fun.

D: And cooperate. Cooperation isn’t strongly emphasized in our culture. Music is the connecting thing that gets us together.

B: Music requires cooperation and collaboration – students come together and work together to reach a common goal: to create a school play, a rock band, a choir. Music helps students to connect with their peers.

D: We learn to listen when we play together: the more silence there is when a band plays, the better the music sounds.

B: Musicians are also more used to putting in work over long periods of time to learn an instrument and can transfer this diligence to other areas of their studies.

D: Music helps with relaxation. It makes you feel good.

D: And it builds confidence. There is a lot of fear and repression about using voice – when we use it we feel confident. To sing we need to really open our mouths. You wouldn’t believe how many adults weren’t heard as kids. Now, as adults they won’t project.

B: In group singing, everyone can have the opportunity to experience being a leader in a safe environment. This helps build confidence.

D: It gets you off your back foot and moves you forward.

Links between Music and Learning

B: Recent research is showing that if a student is competent with oral education, reading and writing will be much stronger. Grades K-3 teachers have recently started integrating more oral exercises in the classroom. There are many song-games that teachers can use to help students learn to read and write.

D: In singing, we focus on vowels.

B: Every word we speak has at least one vowel sound that is longer than the others.

D: And when we’re singing we use our diaphragm, this deepens how we breathe.

D: Singing connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This is integral for learning. Also, it’s integrative in that it uses all the senses. Music opens people up – heart and body.

B: Students connect with music. Music is poetry. It’s good for kids to be able to vocalize why they like a piece of music – in writing or speaking – to describe what they’re passionate about.

D: Singing brings out emotional content – this could help with creative writing.

B: Many traditional English folk songs hold the structure of the English language. If you look at the song “The Farmer in the Dell”, it represents the same structure as many common English phrases. It has 3 syllables with the stress on the middle syllable; the same as ‘eleven’, ‘how are you?’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘I want some’.

B: Cadence and triplets – da da da

B: Or, the Mexican Hat Dance has “da da da-da da da-da da da” “If you want I can give you a cookie.”

B: Some ESL students are more comfortable reading and writing English than speaking English because that is what they have been taught first. I believe in order for students to feel comfortable speaking as well as reading and writing in English, they need to internalize the feel or cadence of the English language and what better way to do that then through music!

D: Music definitely can also boost memorization. For example, international real estate rules were put to the national anthems of each country. The learning and memorization was 4-5 times greater, and fun.

B: Students can use music and rhythm or do movements to spark memory.

Teaching and Connecting with Students through Music

B: Music can boost attention and focus in the class. I use music to control the rhythm of the classroom. We don’t know what students’ experiences have been before school or at recess. I have happy music playing when they come into the class. It changes the energy of the environment. I enjoy this too. If I need a shift in the class, I’ll put on energetic music or slow music. Parents can also do this.

D: One teacher I know uses ukulele to give all classroom instructions

B: A lot of learning can be enhanced by adding movement into the mix. Teachers who challenge themselves with adding music and movement to their lessons often end up enjoying their classes more, as do their students!

B: I notice that behavioral issues tend not to come up in music classes.

D: Maybe it’s because when you’re doing music you’re being seen and heard, so those needs are fulfilled.

B: ipods can be a way to connect with students. Asking what students are listening to, or letting students share ipod music with the class to get the energy up in the class (ex. Fridays students might get to suggest music). If we expect students to listen to our music, we need to be prepared to listen to theirs.

D: I find that music helps me to build a relationship with students. When I teach through relationship, students want to learn whatever I want to teach them. Singing is mostly, for me, about community building.

B: If you’re in a happy frame of mind, you’ll be able to learn better. Music is a fast and easy way to not only connect with students but to create a fun and energetic learning environment.

Bonnie Davison is a music therapist, learning resource teacher, and founder of Singing English Education. Bonnie trains educators to use song-games to teach children how to read and write. Visit:

The Harmonious Family Choir is a non-audition singing community, welcoming all individuals and family groups. The primary goal is to build harmony both at home and at choir by developing skills in listening, cooperating, connecting, focusing, creating and blending. Founding director Doug Paterson enthusiastically invites you to enjoy a trial session. 250-385-SING (7464)

Recipes for Success: Fast, Healthy, Brainy Snacks for Students

by Dahlia Miller
October 2007

“If you wish to make an apple pie truly from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
Carl Sagan (1934-1996 – American Astronomer and Astrochemist)

Brain Foods

Although our brain weighs only 2% of our total body weight, when the body is at rest, the brain uses approximately 20% of the body’s energy. This is why regular, nutritious meals and snacks are so important - especially for students.

To brain has a very limited ability to store energy. So, in order to keep it functioning at its best, it needs constant glucose replacement (the primary source of energy for the brain is glucose, which comes from carbohydrate-rich foods like breads, cereals and pasta).

Healthy snacks can promote optimum brain performance. Of course, students should avoid skipping meals at all costs.

Here is a list of some foods that boost the brain’s functioning:

  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Broccoli
  • Brown rice
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cheese
  • Collard greens
  • Eggs
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Lecithin (liquid or granules)
  • Legumes
  • Milk
  • Oatmeal
  • Oranges
  • Peanut/nut butter
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Soybeans
  • Spinach
  • Wheat germ
  • Yogurt

Snack Recipes

These snacks are simple enough for students in grades 6 and above to prepare on their own. They include healthy brain- boosting foods.

Creamy Smoothie

2 cups soymilk, rice milk or milk
3 bananas (frozen or fresh)
3 tbsp. carob powder (optional)
2 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. liquid lecithin (this is a bee product)

Blend until smooth. (Hint: Rinse the blender right away when you’re done to make washing up easy.)

Fruity Omega Smoothie

2 cups fruit juice
1 cup water (optional)
1.5 - 2 bananas (frozen or fresh)
1/2 cup - 1 cup yogurt
1 tbsp. flaxseed oil
1 scoop “green drink” powder (optional)

Healthy Banana Split

1 medium banana
2 tbsp. jam or fruit sauce
1/4 cup fruit or berries (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup yogurt
1 tbsp. chopped nuts (optional)
2 tbsp. grated coconut (optional)
Scoop yogurt into dish (a wide-bottomed soup bowl works well).
Split banana in half lengthwise and lay alongside the yogurt.
Drop dobs of jam or fruit sauce onto yogurt.
Sprinkle with berries, nuts & coconut.

Lettuce Wraps

2 lettuce leaves per wrap (leafy lettuce, like green or red, is the most flexible)
1 carrot - grated
1/4 beet - grated (optional)
1/4-1/2 cup sprouts
1/4 cup sunflower seeds - roasted
salad dressing to taste
Grate the carrot and beet.
Lay the 2 lettuce leaves, one on top of the other, on a plate.
Place the grated vegetables, sprouts, & sunflower seeds onto the lettuce.
Drizzle with salad dressing.
Roll the lettuce up like a burrito.

Blend until smooth.
Note: Green drinks are green because they are rich in chlorophyll (the green stuff in plants - essentially one of the healthiest things we can eat). Green drinks also usually contain pro-biotics (super-healthy bacteria like in yogurt).

Energy Balls

1/4 cup almonds or nuts - chopped (optional)
1/4 cup granola
1/4 cup sunflower seeds - roasted/chopped
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup tahini, peanut butter, almond butter or other nut butter
1/4 cup honey
3 tbsp. carob powder (optional)
3 tbsp. grated coconut or roasted sesame seeds to roll the balls in (optional)
Chop nuts & sunflower seeds.
Transfer to a bowl and add the other ingredients.
Mix well with spoon or hands.
Form into balls.
Roll into coconut or sesame seeds, if preferred.
Eat or chill first to firm the balls up before eating.

Super-Quick Snacks

  • Yogurt mixed with green drink powder
  • Celery-stick stuffers
    cream cheese & raisins
    nut butter
    peanut/nut butter & raisins
    peanut/nut butter & chopped dates
    mashed banana & raisins
  • Instead of celery sticks, try endive
    spears, romaine lettuce or cucumbers that
    have been halved and scooped out.
  • Granola with yogurt, apple juice, soymilk, rice milk or milk

Other Fast Foods

  • Fresh fruit
  • Popcorn with flaxseed oil & brewer’s yeast, tamari or nutritional yeast
    Note: Brewer’s yeast and nutritional yeast are edible yeasts that contain an excellent vegetarian source of vitamin B12 - they can be found in the bulk food sections of most stores. Tamari is a sauce made from soy beans (like soy sauce) but without wheat. It has a rich, warm flavour.
  • French toast
  • Lightly boiled Edamame beans
    Note: These are soybeans still in their pods - looking like green peas or beans - they can be found in frozen food sections of asian or natural food stores.
  • Nachos
  • Miso soup-in-a-cup: Add 1 tbsp. miso to 1 cup hot water, and stir. Pour on 1 tsp. flaxseed oil.

The secret to a happy life is simple: do one thing at a time. Eat when it is time to eat. Sleep when it is time to sleep.
Zen saying

Sports Involvement Benefits School Performance

by Dahlia Miller
September 2006

“The first wealth is health.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sports bags, sweaty equipment, water bottles, early morning practices, and…homework? Does involvement in sports enhance school performance? The simple answer is yes, mostly.

You’ve heard the phrase, healthy body, healthy mind, right? Well, it’s true, in more ways than one.

Simply put, on a biological level, aerobic exercise (i.e. exercise that gets the heart pumping hard for longer than 20 minutes) pulls more oxygen into the lungs. That means that during exercise, more oxygen is drawn into the blood and pumped through the body and brain. This oxygen-rich blood sweeps “tired” blood out from the brain, allowing the mind to function more effectively. Our bodies are complex machines that are kept in best condition with regular exercise. A healthy brain processes information more efficiently and memorizes with greater ease – obvious benefits for students.

Another way that regular exercise contributes to a healthy mind is through the release of stress. Humans, as physical beings, interact with the world on a physical level. We often store stress in our muscles. Physical exercise gets those muscles moving and allows them to release tension. As humans, we also tend to store stress in our minds. Being active with sports or being on a sports team can help to take our minds off our troubles and let them go on the physical level (as mentioned above) or through connecting with others. A relaxed mind is more open to learning new information and can think more clearly.

One terrific benefit of sports involvement is self-confidence. I’ve noticed that the students I speak to who are very active or on sports teams have a sense of self-awareness that isn’t always easy to come by. They tend not to get caught up in the type of negative self-talk that can really hamper a student’s performance. (Have you ever heard that voice that tells you that you haven’t got a chance at passing the test that just got put in front of you? That negative self-talk can escalate and be quite debilitating to a student.) Students involved in sports are typically very good at setting reasonable goals, recognizing that goals are reached one step at a time, and cheering themselves on as they move toward their goals. These habits are extremely beneficial for students.

The discipline of regular sports practice often transfers quite nicely to schoolwork. Most sports players can recognize when they are focussed and when they aren’t; they know that sports practice (like homework time) has time limits; and they are capable of pushing themselves. In the arena of schoolwork this often means sports players focus on homework when it’s time to focus, don’t let homework drag on all evening, and do their best to work through challenging material.

High self-esteem is another benefit of involvement in sports. Being active and strong, belonging to a team, and having positive mentors and coaches all contribute to positive self-esteem in young people, especially young teens.

Feeling good about themselves, these young people are often more comfortable asking questions in class, seeking help when they need it, studying or working with others and being realistic about their school performance (i.e. not feeling defeated after failing to reach unreasonable goals).

According to Pam Turner, owner of Elevation Empowerment Training in Victoria, and an authority on youth self-esteem, “The more opportunities we can give teens to learn new skills and progress toward goals, the more their self-esteem will grow. Giving them opportunities to become involved in things and develop skills is a key. It could be learning a new sport, an art, a new academic subject, or life skill; the challenge is keeping them engaged and finding things that they can continue to be involved in.”

Of course we’re talking about potential behaviors. Every student is different in his or her interest in and ability for schoolwork. Generally speaking, though, involvement in sports sets students up for success in many ways physically, mentally, and emotionally. Of course, they still may struggle and need support with actual course material, but they’re quite likely to approach even this difficulty with a positive attitude.

Some Possible Negative Effects of Sports Involvement

Like everything there are (at least) two sides to the story. While involvement in sports offers students many positive benefits, it can also create several potential problems for students.

  • The major issues students on sports teams seem to encounter relate to time.
  • Being on a sports team, or being heavily active with sports, requires a time commitment.
  • In the higher grades of high school, the homework load can also be quite demanding time-wise. This can put a strain on the student if he or she is not skilled with time management. Even students who manage their time well can end up feeling overloaded if their sports team travels often or the number of practices per week is quite high. If a student’s schedule is too busy, it can be difficult to keep up with the challenges of course material and the pressures of exams.
  • Again, if there are too many practices per week, or the practices are early or late in the day, this can have a negative impact on a student. Students who are falling asleep over their homework are not working to their peak potential. This, in turn, can create pressure as the student strives (with less time) to maintain a desired grade level.
  • The pressure some students feel (from themselves and/or from their parents) to reach a certain grade level and a certain level of sports proficiency can also detract from the student’s ability to perform in the classroom and on exams. This pressure can lead to added stress and lack of focus.
  • The goal with supporting students who are involved in sports is to cultivate the positive benefits while reducing the possible negative impacts.

So, keep your eyes and ears wide open when your child talks about his or her feelings regarding the impact sports is having on schoolwork. Be ready to offer more encouragement or to lessen the number of commitments if there are complaints.

Give your child and yourself many pats on the back for your dedication to building both a healthy body and healthy mind.

Vacation, Meditation and the Value of Time Off

by Dahlia Miller
June 2007

This month’s edition takes a look at the need for time off. While vacation and time away from school can rest the physical body, quietening the mind can be a source of regeneration and energy for students even in the midst of work. Like a car battery that re-charges itself as it runs, a mind familiar with meditation techniques can constantly tap its most potent energy source – present moment awareness. Some simple meditation techniques especially suited to students are described at the end of the article.

“Every now and then go away and have a little relaxation. To remain constantly at work will diminish your judgment.”
Leonardo DaVinci

Vacation and time off are important components of a student’s life. Besides freedom to rest and recuperate, vacation allows the mind time for integration and synthesis.

Just considering academic load, the sheer quantity of what students are expected to learn these days is impressive. Time away from school can give the student’s hard-working brain the option to reflect and let information sink in.

Sometimes it feels like pushing is the best way to be productive. Our world moves quickly and favours busyness. But this go, go, go attitude is not truly healthy, balanced or sustainable. If we are constantly rushing forward, moving to the next task, present-moment clarity will be elusive. We need to know how to slow down and attend to the present moment, so that decisions can be clear and appropriate.

Our mind is a tool. Like a saw, if our mind is constantly in use, it grows dull. Taking time to rest, allowing the mind to quiet, sharpens the saw. Then when our attention is turned back to the task at hand, it can be focused and more effective.

A balance needs to be struck. If students push too hard and too long, their minds lose their sharpness. With too much time off, on the other hand, students lose discipline and familiarity with newly learned material. By learning some basic meditation techniques, students can learn to be at rest even in the midst of work. How else will they be equipped to deal with the fast pace of modern life – competing for post-secondary positions with middle and high school students who study 12 and 14 hours per day in some countries?

Below is a brief description of some benefits of meditation and a few simple meditation techniques. Practised along with proper rest and self-care, meditation can provide reprieve, enhancing the efforts of students while in school and on vacation. Life is not all seriousness and work. Hopefully we can learn to approach all our tasks with a sense of playfulness and joy.

Benefits of Meditation

We have the benefit of living in a self-repairing system – we are amazing! If we care for ourselves well we can do a lot. Yet, have you ever taken time off and still not felt rested? When we calm our minds, allowing a few quiet moments of relaxation, our bodies begin to repair themselves and gather energy.

If we over-work, lose sleep or become stressed, our abilities in decision-making, problem solving, motivation, hand-eye coordination, and attention to detail are compromised. An over-active mind, an over-stressed system, does not operate well. Meditation calms the body and the spirit, slowing the breathing and the pulse-rate. After just a few minutes or even just a few mindful breaths, the body feels more relaxed and the mind becomes better able to focus.

Meditation can provide perspective, allowing fresh ideas to bubble up. Have you ever strained to remember something, only to have it come to you when you were no longer trying so hard? Freshness and clarity arrive when we loosen the reins on our mind, allowing it to relax into the present moment without effort.

As we practise meditation regularly, amazing things happen: the mind begins to chatter less, we become more able to focus our attention – this single-pointedness allowing us to blast through previous confusion like lightening.

What Meditation Isn’t

Meditation isn’t a blanked mind. It is the brain’s nature to think thoughts, it would be very, very difficult to actually blank the mind; meditation allows thoughts to come and go without following them or getting distracted by them.

Meditation isn’t time-consuming and difficult. It can be as simple as breathing or listening to the sounds around oneself. A few moments of calm awareness can bring great benefit.

Meditation doesn’t leave one cold and distant. Since meditation helps to bring attention to what is happening in the present moment, it can actually help to develop one’s ability to be natural with what is happening (it’s easier to laugh when one is paying attention to the joke).

Meditation isn’t a sign of weakness. Great thinkers and accomplished people throughout history have developed their skills through one-pointed concentration. In fact, through meditation, the power of mind can be focussed, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, bringing great clarity.

Simple Meditation Techniques

There are so many forms that meditation can take. The key point is to bring awareness to what is happening in the present moment. Here are some examples of meditations that can suit students quite nicely since they are all quick and can be done at any time – in class, during an exam, before homework, etc.

  • Following the breath, label the in-breath “one” and the out-breath “one”, then the next in-breath “two” and out-breath “two”, and so on up to “five”. If you’d like to continue, start again counting your next in-breath “one”.
  • Sit quietly, upright and relaxed with both feet on the floor. Breathe deeply for one or two breaths. Turn your attention to the bottoms of your feet. With your mind, sense the bottoms of your feet on the floor or in your shoes. With your mind, feel the backs of your legs on the chair. Feel your back against the chair; feel your head resting on your shoulders; feel your belly and chest rise with an in-breath. Repeat, if you like.
  • Sit quietly, relaxed and breathe deeply for one or two breaths. Ask yourself, “I wonder what I will think next?” Then watch for the next thought. Don’t follow the thought, simply see it rise like a bubble and float away. Then ask again, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” This practice can help you to gain more of a sense of distance from your thoughts: you are not your thoughts. The space between thoughts (whether one milli-second or ten seconds) is a well of still waters that you can tap into.
  • Sit quietly and relaxed. When you hear something, in your mind say, “hearing”. When you think something, in your mind say, “thinking”. When you feel an emotion, in your mind say, “feeling”. This labeling can help you to recognize what is happening around you and within you. It will be easier for you to discriminate between what is actually happening (for example, writing an exam) and what is going on in your mind (for example, fear or a memory of a previous bad experience with an exam).
  • Notice what is around you. Where are you? Are you standing or sitting? Feel your feet on the ground. Is there a smell in the air? Can you feel a breeze? What noises can you hear? How do your clothes feel – are they loose or tight, soft or scratchy? Are the muscles in your face relaxed or tense?

“The bigger the summer vacation the harder the fall.”

“Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you’ll win. Channel your energy. Focus.”
Carol Lewis, American Athlete