Can doing squats make you smarter? In Tyler Belanger's experience, it can.
“If you apply the right academic challenges, and under the right environment, you can create a better academic environment for a student,” said Belanger, a former high school teacher and creator of the Ignite! Academy in Sault Ste.Marie.
Based on the premise that doing a block of physical activity before giving an academic lesson can boost information retention rates amongst learners, the Ignite! program is showing positive results in its Sault clients, and attracting attention from across Ontario and the U.S.
Developed just over a year ago by Belanger and partner Chris Cooper, the program serves students with learning challenges like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, as well as clients with acquired brain injuries (ABIs).
Both long-time fitness enthusiasts, Belanger and Cooper, a personal trainer who owns the Catalyst Fitness gym out of which Ignite! operates, they always suspected a correlation between fitness level and academic performance.
“We really just started for education purposes,” Belanger said. “We were approached by a speech pathologist who said this program would work great for brain injury clients, so we said, sure, we'll try it out, and we've just been going and going.”
The pair studied research demonstrating physical activity had a positive effect on learning, and discovered the brain secretes a chemical during exercise that aids memory and learning. They combined the research with the core principles of the CrossFit strength and conditioning program into Ignite!, which encourages participation and adherence.
“We love to see them come in, but it's even better when we don't have to see them anymore, and they leave with that as a part of them—wanting to exercise, wanting to get better, or wanting to take control of their own environment and circumstances,” he said.
Currently operating out of a 6,000-square-foot warehouse in a Sault Ste. Marie industrial park, Belanger anticipates the business will have to move to a larger space to accommodate more classes as the business grows in prominence.
Ignite! employs three full-time and two part-time trainers, and this summer will bring on a student intern to help with the caseload. As the business grows, Belanger sees the Sault's high population of out-of-work supply teachers as a promising source of trainers.
Their work has already caught fire south of the border, where interest from a Boston gym prompted them to write a book, Ignite! Enrichment Through Exercise, and the pair offers online training in the Ignite! principles, which qualifies people to administer the program to clients. They've even coined a new phrase for their role: neuromotive therapist.
Moving forward, Belanger and Cooper are steadily working to expand their client base. Belanger believes the program could benefit clients living with anxiety or depression, athletes strengthening their mental toughness, and clients returning to work after an accident.
“It's pretty wild to see how the body can heal itself when you push it,” Belanger said. “The brain has been proven in research and many books that it can heal itself, but only if you do the work. So we've provided that environment; come in, do the work, and watch your improvements.”