Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

Northeastern University Professor Chuck Hillman, PhD on “The Impact of Exercise on the Brain and Learning.”

April 12, 2021

Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast episode #123 with Dr. Charles Hillman, whose research and brain scans on students during his time at the University of IL (from 2000-2016) provided enough science to spearhead Naperville’s Zero-hour PE program that we’ve been covering on the past few podcast episodes (#116,[i] #118[ii], #119[iii], #121[iv], #122[v]) that put physical exercise and its impact on cognition and the brain, on the map. It was Paul Zientarski, the former PE teacher and football coach from Naperville who mentioned Dr. Chuck Hillman’s brain scan studies in our interview #121 and I thought these brain scans were so important, that I covered a deeper dive into the results of these scans on episode #122.

You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

My name is Andrea Samadi, and if you have been listening to our podcast for some time, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, (in school, sports or the workplace) it all begins with an understanding of our brain. The goal of this podcast is to bring in experts, who’ve risen to the top of their field, and share their knowledge, wisdom and tips that many of us wouldn’t have access to, since this understanding of the importance of our brain and results is relatively new.

Here’s more about our guest today,

Dr. Hillman received his doctorate from the University of Maryland in 2000, and then began his career on the faculty at the University of Illinois, where he was a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health for 16 years. He continued his career at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, where he currently holds appointments in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Physical Therapy, Movement, and Rehabilitation Sciences. He co-directs the new Center for Cognitive and Brain Health[vi], which has the mission of understanding the role of health behaviors on brain and cognition to maximize health and well-being and promote the effective functioning of individuals across the lifespan. Dr. Hillman has published more than 265 refereed journal articles, 15 book chapters, and co-edited a text entitled Functional Neuroimaging in Exercise and Sport Sciences[vii].

When Paul Zientarski mentioned that it was Dr. Hillman who helped him to make up his mind about making changes to their PE program in Naperville, after he saw the scans of students’ brains after just 20 minutes of walking, I knew I had to find out if Dr. Hillman would come on the podcast.

I emailed him at Northeastern University on Saturday afternoon, and he replied early Sunday morning that he was interested helping to expand on the results he discovered through his brain scans. We had a chance to exchange some emails, pick an interview time, and that’s how simple it is when you reach out to someone who really does want to see change occur in the world.  Let’s hear from Dr. Hillman.

Welcome Dr. Hillman,

Thank you so much for such an enjoyable chat Sunday morning, as were picking a time to speak. I know that time is always a factor, when I’m reaching out for the podcast, and do want to maximize our time together, so we can dive a bit deeper into the research that began when you were at the University of IL.

Q1: Dr. Hillman, I listened to a podcast that you did with a young man from the UK, Daniel Elias[viii], and I loved his introductory question to you about what it was that began your interest early in your career to study children and the impact that exercise has on their brain? Can we start with where it all began for you?

Q2:  The research is clear that exercise has a significant impact on student achievement, from your work, and from the results that Naperville was able to create using your research to create their Zero-hour PE program, and from our conversation on Sunday morning, we know how powerful nature can be on our mindset and health, but I wonder, is there anything we can do to encourage physical activity in those students or children who have not caught the fitness bug, and prefer their screen time vs getting out and going for a walk in the outdoors?

Q3: Before I ask some questions about what your early studies showed, I wanted to double check to be sure that I have the correct understanding of what happened with the lower fit student’s brain vs higher fit. Is it accurate to say that “The most noticeable difference was during the difficult test, the brains of the higher fit students lit up bright red, showing the increase of brain activity they had access to, and the lower fit students just didn’t have enough brain power during the difficult test?” To be sure that I am sharing the most accurate information, how would you explain the results of this brain scan and what other research have you done that goes beyond what you discovered early on?

Q4: I saw 2 studies under the research tab on your website. What are you currently working on at your Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, and what is your vision for your work in the next 10 years?

Q4B: Are you looking at how exercise slows down cognitive decline?

Q5: Dr. Hillman, At your lab, do you only use fMRI scans? As brain scan technology changes, advances and improves, can you see how different brain scanning technology and tools could help us to learn more about the brain by perhaps measuring neurotransmitters, or looking at how different parts of the brain interact with each other? What do you think is on the horizon for how we can look at and measure with our brain?

Dr. Hillman, I want to thank you very much for your time today. If anyone wants to learn more about you and your work, is the best place  and your Center for Cognitive and Brain Health Lab?

I have put links in the show notes for people to learn more about your lab through Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.

Have an incredible week!



Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd Edition

Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function (October 2014)

Art Kramer Director and Professor of Psychology


[i] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast Episode #116 with Best Selling Author John J. Ratey on “The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”

[ii] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast Episode #118 with Andrea Samadi on a Deep Dive into Best-Selling Author John J. Ratey’s Books “Spark, Go Wild and Driven to Distraction”

[iii] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast Episode #119 Brain Fact Friday on “The Damaging Impact of Sugar on the Brain and Body”

[iv] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast Episode #121 with Naperville’s Central High School’s former PE teacher and football coach Paul Zientarski on “Transforming Students Using Physical Education and Neuroscience”

[v][v] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast Episode #122 Brain Fact Friday

[vi]Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University

[vii]Functional Neuroimaging in Exercise and Sport Sciences 2012th Edition

[viii] Believe, Move Grow Podcast EPISODE #2 with Dr. Charles Hillman


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