It’s nothing we haven’t heard before – physical activity is good for us! As parents, we are told time and time again that active kids are healthy ones. With busy family schedules and school board’s cutting down on recess time, it is sometimes hard to incorporate enough physical activity into a kids day. What research is starting to tell us is that not only is being active good for our kids physically, but mentally and academically as well. In this 3 part series about the relationship between physical activity and learning, we will look at the evidence supporting the fact that kids need daily exercise as well as the research behind it. We will finish off the series with some tips for parents and educators on how to integrate physical activity and learning.
There are several factors that influence a child’s academic performance at school including socioeconomic status, parental involvement, attendance, cognitive function and many other demographic and personal factors. We also know that physical fitness is a crucial part of our daily lives. Multiple studies have confirmed that health benefits are associated with physical activity, including cardiovascular fitness, bone health, psychosocial outcomes and cognitive and brain health (Strong et al., 2005). Here, we will examine the link between physical activity and academic performance and discuss some ways in which we can integrate more exercise into the daily lives of students.
It is no surprise that healthy children learn better and this is empirically supported and well accepted in the research community (Basch, 2010). A ten year study in Preventive Medicine demonstrated that integrating movement with academics in elementary school classrooms is feasible, helps students focus on learning and enables them to realize their academic potential (Kibbe et al., 2011). Another very cool study completed in 2010 at the University of Illinois with children around 9 and 10 years of age found that children who got some form of exercise (usually aerobic exercise like walking, running, etc.) before a test performed better than those children who didn’t get any exercise at all.
And lastly, a study released in January of this year by Lund University in Sweden shows that students, especially boys, who had daily physical education, did better in school overall.
A wonderfully informative book published in 2013 by the Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment by the National Academy of Medicine in Washington very clearly outlines some key messages about the relationship between physical activity and academic performance:
- Evidence suggests that increasing physical activity and physical fitness may improve academic performance and that time in the school day dedicated to recess, physical education class and physical activity in the classroom may also facilitate academic performance
- Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity
- Basic cognitive functions related to attention and memory facilitate learning and these functions are enhanced by physical activity and higher aerobic fitness
- Single sessions of and long-term participation in physical activity improve cognitive performance and brain health. Children who participate in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity benefit the most
As we have seen here, there is a direct link between physical activity and better learning. But exactly how does this work? What does exercise do to make kids better learners? In part 2 of our series on the impact that physical activity has on learning, we will dive deeper into the scientific research that demonstrates this link.