By Patrick Travers, History Faculty
Hopefully you will never have to outrun a bear in your lifetime. If you do find yourself running away from a grizzly, physical fitness might save your life. But there must be other reasons to exercise, right? The sports tradition at St. Mark’s and many peer schools has deep historical roots. In his May Head’s Reflection, John Warren focused on the importance of athletics at St. Mark’s and the school’s continuing commitment to athletics in education. School athletic teams foster lifelong skills for students that can be transferred to a family and a career later in life.
Recent studies have indicated a strong connection between academic success and exercise. In a recent study published by The New York Times researchers from the University of Illinois studied 9- and 10-year-old boys and girls.[i] The researchers tested not only their memorization of information, but also recall of information at a later date. Memorization was tested both using intermittent testing during the memorization and non-intermittent testing. Although results were relatively equal for the intermittent testing group, results were significantly higher for the non-intermittent testing in children with higher aerobic fitness. In another study published by The Journal of Physiology, researchers at the University of Bath took 26 healthy young men and divided them into two groups. Both groups were instructed to gorge themselves on food. For one week, one group ran for 45 minutes on a treadmill while the other group did not exercise. After seven days, the young men had their body fat and insulin levels tested. Consequently, the sedentary group exhibited lower blood sugar level control and significant unhealthy changes in their fat cells, which could lead to negative changes in their metabolism.[ii] The exercising group had few changes in their blood sugar levels and little changes in their fat cells. What does this mean for St. Markers? More energy for those Friday afternoon Brown double periods!
Athletics are an investment in keeping St. Markers’ middle-aged “intellectual spark” alive and well. A recent NYT article titled “Early Fitness Can Improve the Middle-Age Brain” describes a study of early adult exercise and cognitive function and memory. The study began in the mid-1980s with thousands of men and women 18 to 30 years old undergoing a battery of health tests, including blood and cholesterol as well as a treadmill fitness test.[iii] Twenty-five years later, subjects were asked to recall lists of words and distinguish colors from text. After the study’s results were analyzed, one of the scientists, Dr. David Jacobs, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, noted that “it looks like the roots of cognitive decline go back decades.”[iv] The subjects with the higher levels of fitness in the 1980s consistently performed better on the memory tests.
Being an athlete might even help land a job some day because athletes understand teamwork! According to Forbes magazine, athletes possess qualities most desirable to employers during the hiring process.[v] These are not qualities of only all-American or National Champion athletes, these are characteristics a St. Markers can build at any level of athletic competition. The phrase “we value cooperation over self-interest”[vi] is smack dab in the middle of the St. Mark’s School mission statement. This means that a St. Marker is encouraged to be a team player. I see this each spring during crew practice on Lake Quinsigamond. There are no all-star rowers or coxswains in crew. Either a boat wins, or a boat loses. No single rower or coxswain can win independently from his or her crew. During a cross country race, the finish places of the top five runners are added together to create a team score. That means that a team with two lightning quick runners at the front of the pack can end up losing a race if the other three scoring runners lag behind. And what about the sixth, seventh, eighth, thirtieth runner? That runner is trying to move one spot ahead each race: to catch the next fastest runner on the team. Individual athletes push each other to make the whole team stronger.
With the intentionally small student body of St. Mark’s, athletics offer a chance to interact with peers and faculty whom are not seen daily. I coach runners and coxswains whom I only see at practice. Imagine if they stayed in their rooms after class instead of lacing up running sneakers to meet on West Campus? What happens if a St. Marker relocates later in life for love, employment, or family? He or she can join a local running club, a squash club, an adult soccer league, or a boathouse! Athletics can open the door for students to meet a new circle of friends in a foreign place.
The St. Mark’s sports requirement remain important and relevant because it encourages, and literally mandates, III Formers to try athletic endeavors they might have only heard about before stepping onto 25 Marlboro Road. There are a whole host of reasons to get involved in athletics at St. Mark’s. And remember, there’s always a hungry bear out there.
Patrick Travers teaches in the History and Social Sciences department. He lives in Thieriot with his wife and their two yellow labs. Patrick coaches boys’ cross country and crew.
[i] Gretchen Reynolds, “The Power of a Daily Bout of Exercise,” The New York Times, November 27, 2013, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/27/the-power-of-a-daily-bout-of-exercise/.
[iii] Gretchen Reynolds, “Early Fitness Can Improve the Middle-Age Brain,” The New York Times, May 7, 2014, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/07/a-fit-body-at-25-a-fit-brain-at-50/?src=xps.
[v] David K. Williams, “Why You Should Fill Your Company With ‘Athletes’,” Forbes, October 2, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevecooper/2012/07/31/why-wrestlers-make-the-best-employees/.
[vi] “Mission Statement,” May 19, 2014, http://www.stmarksschool.org/about-st-marks/mission-statement/index.aspx.