Let the Kids Play: They’ll Do Better in School

Think that physical activity is just good for the body? Turns out exercise can help youngsters do better in school too

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First Lady Michelle Obama may be on to something with her unflagging “Let’s Move” admonitions — the latest research shows that physical activity may help children do better in school.

Amika Singh, a senior researcher at VU University in the Netherlands, reports in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine that physical activity is associated with better academic performance, as measured by higher GPAs and better scores on standardized tests. She and her colleagues reviewed 14 studies, some of which simply recorded the amount of physical activity that children, parents or teachers reported that youngsters got over three days to seven days prior to the study, and some of which randomly assigned students to varying amounts of exercise a day. Taken together, the studies showed that the more physical activity the children had, the higher their scores in school, particularly in the basic subjects of math, English and reading.

The data support earlier research that linked exercise with more productivity and fewer sick days for adults, and could fuel the ongoing debate over whether physical education classes should be cut from school programs due to budget constraints. According to the Centers for Disease Control, students should have about one hour of physical activity every day to remain healthy; only 18% of high school students met this requirement in the week prior to a 2009 survey and 23% had not exercised at all during that period. The argument for reducing the amount of school time devoted to physical education is based on the fact that standardized test scores for US children have been dropping in recent years, and some administrators believe gym time can be better used to boost academic performance.

But Singh and her team show that rather than impairing school performance, physical activity may actually improve grades, which could help to retain gym programs throughout the nation. The studies considered physical activity as any exercise children received from either school-based physical education classes or organized sports both inside and outside of school. Being more active, says Singh, may improve blood flow to the brain, which provides more oxygen to cells involved in learning and attention. Exercise also boosts levels of certain hormones that can improve mood and fight stress, both of which can also provide a better learning environment for children.

Singh says that the benefits of physical activity may extend beyond academic performance, however. “Children learn by participating in sports, learning rules, and learning to act appropriately in a social environment,” she says. “And that translates into the classroom, where children who are physically active may adhere better to classroom rules and get along better with teachers and classmates. So academic performance may just be the short term benefit of exercise; there are a whole range of social and behavioral benefits that go beyond grades as well.”

One limitation of the analysis, however, is the fact that Singh deemed only two of the 14 studies as being high quality, meaning that the studies were set up in such as way that the both physical activity levels and academic performance were measured in a reliably objective way. Some of the studies depended on either the students or parents and teachers recalling how much exercise the children got over a certain period, and these surveys are always subject to bias.

Still, the findings hint that getting active may have long term benefits not just for the body, but for the brain as well. And the physical activity doesn’t have to occur in a single bout of hour-long exercise. Shorter periods of activity that break up the hours-long school day may be just as effective as a single session, and may make it easier to work in physical education into school curricula.