07/18/2013 09:01 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

How a Rowing Boat Can Calm the Nerves

More than a few times, I have heard parents comment on how much calmer their children have become since they started rowing with Row New York. "She just comes home, does her homework, and goes to bed. She's just real focused and calm." This always made sense to me. Put a young person (or not so young person) in a rowing boat and ask them to focus on making it go fast for two hours using their entire bodies; of course they will be tired and calm. Turns out, there is more to the story.

In her recent Well blog in the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds talks about the calming effects of exercise on the brain. You can read the piece here:

In the study that Reynolds sites, the scientists get mice to exercise and then stress them out. The mice who exercised (in case you're wondering, they used treadmills, not CrossFit for Rodents) produced a considerable number of new neurons that are designed to release the neurotransmitter GABA, which essentially quiets the brain. Reynolds refers to these as "nanny neurons." When the mice were subsequently placed in ice-cold water (apparently mice dislike this) the mice who exercised, and thus had the nanny neurons, experienced initial stress just as the sedentary mice did, but they became calm and recovered much more quickly.

Many young people in our city encounter daily stressors that would not be considered routine by most. We are not talking about a crowded subway or a deadline for work or school, but deep and acute stress around security (physical and emotional), hunger, and violence within their homes, schools, and communities. Science is now supporting the assumption that this type of anxiety can and does impede learning in school. Our brains just cannot focus on quadratic equations or essay writing when there is a threat to our safety on a regular basis.

I assumed rowing ameliorated some of these realities through creating a place where young people were truly safe and supported, where they were outdoors, rowing hard, and spending time with friends. I was very pleased to see that there might be actual changes taking place in their brains thanks to all that rowing. Changes that would take them beyond those moments of calm when they are in the boat together, and those moments of contented fatigue later in the day, and actually give them greater peace of mind as they move towards the stresses, challenges, and successes of adulthood.