What parent doesn’t want their child do reach their full potential?
We all want them to get the best grades possible and have as many opportunities open to them later in life. Right?
Well what if doing hours and hours of homework isn’t the answer? What if studying was only part of the A+ formula? Gone are the days when we thought that being good at P.E., meant you were rubbish at maths.
There is now masses of research that supports the view that active kids perform better academically.
Obviously there are many other reasons why being active and getting enough exercise is important for youngsters. Childhood obesity figures in Australia are, quite frankly, alarming. But over the past couple of years, research studies across the globe have been pumping out stats to show that exercise not only has physical benefits, but mental benefits too.
What the boffins say
The research all points to one conclusion: exercise is good for learning and for your brain.
You may think that your kids get enough exercise at school and this may be a case. But a comprehensive study by the University of Chile found that school kids who had over four hours of exercise scheduled into their school week performed better in language and maths tests than those who only had two hours or less. Overall they stated that:
“Our findings support the notion that academic and health-related behaviours are linked and, similarly, that school health programs may have positive effects on educational outcomes.”
But don’t fret. If exercise during the school day isn’t high up on the curriculum, then exercise outside of school hours has also been found to be beneficial. A study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released findings that children who participate in after-school exercise groups have improved cognitive function and higher focus levels than their more sedentary peers.
Research from the University of Madrid“Cardiorespiratory capacity and motor ability, both independently and combined, may have a beneficial influence on academic performance in youth.”
However, unfit doesn’t necessarily mean fat. Another study published in The Journal of Pediatrics compared 12,000 Nebraska students’ timed runs and BMIs (body mass index) against their standardised test scores. They found that:
“Aerobic fitness was a significant predictor of academic performance; weight status was not.”
Interestingly, a child’s weight or BMI didn’t matter. It was the child’s physical fitness that contributed to better scores. Of course, that’s not to say that being overweight is healthy.
Fitness is also linked to learning and memory. A study published in PLOS One asked two groups of 9-10 year olds to memorise fictional places on an iPad map. One group was physically fit (as determined by a treadmill test), and the other was not.
When asked to remember the locations, the fit kids scored an average of 43 percent. The unfit kids scored an average 25.8 percent. The study’s researchers concluded:
“Fitness can boost learning and memory of children and that these fitness-associated performance benefits are largest in conditions in which initial learning is the most challenging.”
In other words, fit kids can grasp more complex concepts and complete more complicated tasks.
The biology behind higher test scores
Warning: more boffin talk ahead.
Exercise (especially cardio) pumps oxygen and blood to the brain. Many studies have shown that this increases the production of new brain cells (aka neurogenesis) and boosts overall brain performance.
Referring back to the PLOS One study, their M.R.I. scans revealed that the fittest children had heftier hippocampi (part of the brain which helps with learning and memory) and larger basal ganglia (used for maintaining attention, and controlling thoughts and actions).
In plain English: if sport and exercise develops the size and functionality of these areas of the brain, this explains why being fit enhances cognition and makes for more effective learning in kids.
How to make sure your kid gets enough exercise
It’s a good idea to introduce exercise early so it becomes a natural part of your child’s life.
Not sure where to start? Try everything until they find something they like. Forcing kids to dance when they would rather be swimming will increase brain activity but it won’t become a habit. The last thing you want is for exercise to become a drag and be associated with feelings of negativity.
Screen time is becoming a huge issue for this generation of youngsters. Australian children spend an average of 15 hours per week watching TV. If this sounds about right, maybe it’s time to cut down on the cartoons.
To put this into perspective, here are the Australian Department of Health’s physical activity guidelines for kids:
- Pre-schoolers – 60 minutes of planned and 60-120 minutes un-planned physical activity daily.
- School kids – 60 minutes or more minimum of planned or unplanned physical activity daily.
This may sound a lot. But remember play counts too!
So whether it’s playing tag in the park or tennis coaching after school. It’s all good for them, and it may even be better for their grades than that extra hour of homework.