Getting kids to be active can be beneficial for them in ways beyond physical. For one, children involved in sports tend to have higher self esteem. But did you also know that regular exercise can also make them perform better in school?
There has been some interesting research lately.
(For the record, the benefits of physical activity also hold true for the adult brain. To see why cycling is one of the best exercises for the brain, see our follow up article, ADHD & Cycling.)
Dr. Mercola began an article on the subject with the enticing headline: Proven: Kids Get Smarter Just from Doing This One Simple Thing. That one thing? Being active. Below is an excerpt:
An extensive review of relevant research has demonstrated that the more physically active schoolchildren are, the better they do academically.
Researchers analyzed 14 studies, ranging in size from as few as 50 participants to as many as 12,000.
All of the studies involved children between the ages of 6 and 18.
“Physical activity and sports are generally promoted for their positive effect on children’s physical health; regular participation in physical activity in childhood is associated with a decreased cardiovascular risk in youth and adulthood.
There is also a growing body of literature suggesting that physical activity has beneficial effects on several mental health outcomes, including health-related quality of life and better mood states.
In addition… there is a strong belief that regular participation in physical activity is linked to enhancement of brain function and cognition, thereby positively influencing academic performance.
There are several hypothesized mechanisms for why exercise is beneficial for cognition, including:
- Increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain
- Increased levels of norepinephrine and endorphins resulting in a reduction of stress and an improvement of mood
- Increased growth factors that help to create new nerve cells and support synaptic plasticity
… The increasing pressures to improve academic scores often lead to additional instructional time for subjects such as mathematics and language at the cost of time for being physically active. Given the suggested relationship and the ongoing discussions on the replacement of physical education lessons by academic subjects, we aimed to review the evidence on the longitudinal relationship between these two variables…
To summarize, the literature provides inconclusive evidence on the positive longitudinal relationship between physical activity and academic performance. However, there is a strong general belief that this relationship is present, and research in this area is ongoing.”
Exercise and Academic Performance
Keeping kids active at school is a superb way to increase learning, focus and even test results. As many of you reading this have likely experienced, if your mind is feeling cluttered or you’re having a mid-afternoon slump, a brisk walk or a quick workout can give you a renewed sense of clarity and focus. This is certainly true for kids too.
Two years ago, ABC News reported on a special program being implemented at Naperville Central High School, where students could take part in a dynamic gym class at the beginning of the day, and had access to exercise bikes and balls throughout the day in their classrooms. The results were astounding. Those who participated nearly doubled their reading scores, and math scores increased 20-fold!
Research has shown that after 30 minutes on the treadmill, students solve problems up to 10 percent more effectively.
Although it’s becoming more widely known that physical activity has a direct result on brain function, many schools in the US are removing rather than improving their phys ed programs… This means it’s up to you to encourage your child to stay active after school and on weekends in order to reap the wonderful brain-boosting benefits that exercise has to offer.
How Exercise Boosts Brain Function
Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage. Animal tests have also illustrated that during exercise their nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and has a direct benefit on brain functions, including learning. Further, exercise provides protective effects to your brain through:
- The production of nerve-protecting compounds
- Greater blood flow to your brain
- Improved development and survival of neurons
Decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases
A 2010 study on primates published in Neuroscience also revealed that regular exercise not only improved blood flow to the brain, but also helped the monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys; a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well.
Other Health Benefits of Regular Exercise
There’s absolutely no doubt that kids need exercise, and that most kids aren’t getting enough. Less than one-third of kids aged 6 to 17 get at least 20 minutes of daily exercise in one form or another. This is tragic, considering the multitude of short- and long-term health benefits your child can gain from a regular exercise regimen, including:
- Reduced risk of diabetes and pre-diabetes
- Improved immune system function
- Improved sleep
- Improved mood
- Stronger bones
- Weight loss
- Increased energy levels
- Reduced restlessness or hyperactivity; helps decrease symptoms of ADHD
Speaking of ADHD, see our story from a Bicycling.com article called Riding is My Ritalin, where a boy diagnosed with ADHD and his parents set out to find an alternative to the frequently diagnosed medication for the disorder.