Washington - There’s little dispute that physical activity is good for children: it not only helps to develop muscles and fend off obesity, it also offers opportunities to socialise and learn new skills.
Can physical activity also help to improve a child’s academic performance?
“This is a consistent finding, that physically fit kids do better in school,” says James Sallis, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California at San Diego, who has long worked on preventing childhood obesity.
A recent report from the US Institute of Medicine asserts that “children who are more active show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardised academic tests than children who are less active”.
A strong body of research supports the link between physical fitness and test scores. In one study, for example, nearly 2 000 California schoolchildren who were outside a “healthy fitness zone” scored lower on state standardised tests than those who were more fit.
A similar study in Nebraska assessed the fitness of schoolchildren in a shuttle run, in which kids run a back-and-forth lap in a set time. The kids who performed best on this test scored higher on both the maths and reading portions of state standardised exams.
While compelling, such evidence does not prove that fitness is the cause of higher test scores. Fitness in children also tends to correlate with higher socio-economic status, which is strongly predictive of academic achievement.
The more important question is: does adding opportunities for physical activity during the school day boosts kids’ capacity to learn?
The research on this question is still in its early stages, but the evidence is beginning to suggest the answer is yes.
One recent study conducted in Georgia invited 111 inactive, overweight kids, aged seven to 11, to take part in an after-school exercise programme, during which they were active for at least 20 minutes. Another 60 children, who were also overweight, were wait-listed and served as controls.
After 13 weeks, the children in the exercise programme performed better than the controls on tests of mental tasks such as planning, organising and strategising, as well as on standardised maths tests.
In Kansas, an intervention designed to combat obesity also found a link between physical activity and learning. In the study, teachers at 14 elementary schools were trained to teach lessons using movement; for example, students might hop or run to letters on the floor to spell words or might solve 2+2=4 by moving their bodies rather than blocks. Ten other schools served as controls; their teachers received no training.
The added activity had positive effects on body weight. In the schools where activity was added, 21.8 percent of children who were at risk for obesity moved into the normal range for body mass index (a measure of weight that takes height into account); in the control schools, 16.8 percent of at-risk kids moved to normal.
Study co-author Joseph Donnelly, director of the Centre for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, says he added a measure of academic performance almost as an afterthought, “to show, at minimum, that we were not disrupting the classroom”.
What happened surprised the researchers: scores on a 30-minute standardised test of reading, writing and maths were higher in the schools that used active lessons than in the schools that didn’t.
Though it is too early to draw broad conclusions from these studies, the evidence is mounting that physical activity is even more beneficial than previously thought.
How this translates into children’s lives – where videogames and other sedentary activities are a constant allure – is a challenge parents and schools face together. – The Washington Post