Physically Active Children Have Higher Scholastic Achievements

In the last column, we discussed how regular exercise benefits adult brain. Today, we will focus on the importance of exercise for school children to boost their brain power.

These days, it is sad to note, when the education system is hit with cutbacks, one of the first programs to suffer is the physical education program. In Canada, we are also at the mercy of the unpredictable weather which hinders children’s outdoor activities.

We can always talk about the good old days. I was brought up in a country where our outdoor activities were not hampered by the vagaries of the weather nor country’s economic situation. Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was under the British rule and life those days was comfortably slow.

We would start the day at school with one hour of physical activity outdoors. After school we would have another hour or two of sporting activities involving different teams. Now the reality is, we can pine for those days but they isn’t coming back. We now live in a different kind of world where economic realities trump all other considerations.

We, as teachers and parents, owe it to our children to provide them with time, facilities and financial support for an hour or two of physical activity on a daily basis. This will not only boost their brain power, it will also act as an antidote for obesity and poor health. Developmental psychologists have suggested that in young children there is a link between physical and mental growth.

An article in the Scientific American Mind (September/October 2010) by Steve Ayan, a psychologist, makes three important points about the academic athletes:

-Students who are fit – based on their high aerobic capacity and low body fat – also tend to perform well in school and on standardized tests.
-In addition to regular exercise, brief periods of movement such as jumping or stretching can help improve children’s concentration.
-Exercise may turbocharge the brain by raising levels of neuronal growth factors, which foster the formation of new connections between brain cells.

Ayan’s conclusions are based on several studies quoted in his article. A review of about dozen articles done by psychologist Charles H. Hillman in 2008 revealed that children and teenagers with higher level of aerobic fitness – but not muscle strength or flexibility – were associated with better performance in school and on standardized tests.

That means, if the young person is more physically fit then more likely he or she will attain higher grades. This connection holds well from elementary school to college. Being fit at age 18 was correlated with a higher level of scholarly achievement in later life, says Ayan.

In a review of 17 studies from 2008, scientists from Universities of Quebec and Toronto concluded that reserving up to an hour a day for physical activity in school curriculums does not detract from academic achievement. “To the contrary, they noted that more exercise often improved school performance, despite the time it took away from reading, writing and arithmetic,” says Ayan.

Teachers and parents should recognize that physical education is about building the brain as well as body. Ayan concludes by saying, “If teachers want their students to pay attention, they should consider letting them jump, stomp and bend their bodies regularly during the school day. Most children have a natural inclination to move, so all the adults have to do is get out of their way.”

A very sensible advice.

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