While gym class may seem like an extraneous part of an academic program, getting aerobic exercise can help students to learn and remember more.
A small study of 48 students between the ages nine and 10 showed that those with higher levels of physical fitness performed better on mental tests. The researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had the kids memorize names and locations on a map of a made-up region. Students in the top 30% of their age group for aerobic fitness were better able to learn and recall the fictitious names and locations than those in the lowest 30% for aerobic fitness. This difference was even more pronounced when the kids were tested in the most challenging way — after studying alone, compared to being tested periodically while they studied, which is considered an easier way to retain information.
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That suggests that aerobic fitness influences children’s neurological processes in potentially significant ways; previous research among elderly people suggested that improved blood flow can keep neurons healthy and efficient, which can maintain nerve networks and improve cognitive functions. This study hints that the same benefits may occur in younger brains. It’s also possible that children who are physically active also tend to participate in more activities that improve their cognitive performance, such as reading.
And although the scientists cannot describe exactly how aerobic fitness helps learning and memory, they say that the findings highlight the importance of physical activity for students. In a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control, about half of high schools surveyed said they provided no PE classes during an average week. That doesn’t bode well for either the health of America’s youth — nor, according to these latest findings, their intellectual development. Gym classes, it seems, may be just as critical for learning as reading and writing.