Want to help your kids do better in school this fall? Get them moving. That’s the message from a growing field of research linking physical activity with better academic performance.
At a time when many schools have reduced or eliminated gym classes and recess, experts say the worry goes beyond the childhood obesity epidemic.
“It’s not only Johnny’s getting fat, and heart disease down the road — all that’s true. But it’s also that he might not do as well in school,” says James Pivarnik, president-elect of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
In one of the latest studies in this field, Pivarnik and colleagues found that middle-school students who performed best on fitness tests — which gauged aerobic capacity, strength, endurance, flexibility and body composition — performed better academically as well.
Results from the study, which included 317 students in grades six through eight, showed that the fittest group of students scored almost 30 percent higher on standardized tests than the least fit group. And the least fit students had grades in four core classes that were 13 percent to 20 percent lower than all other kids, according to findings presented at a recent ACSM meeting.
Experts speculate that exercise may boost academic performance in various ways, including: burning off pent-up energy and allowing kids to pay attention better and focus on their work; boosting self-esteem and mood; and increasing blood flow to the brain, helping with memory and concentration.
Studies in older people have found that cognitive function is significantly better among those who are active, Pivarnik notes. “This is the other end,” he says. “This is the developmental end.”
Teri Coha, a Chicago-area mother, says physical activity is essential for keeping her 9-year-old son, Cody, on track in school. He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and although he takes medication for it, he needs daily exercise to help him focus, she says.
“We use exercise as a tool for studying because we would never get through it” otherwise, she says. “He just needs that outlet.”
Besides allowing for short exercise breaks during study sessions, sometimes Coha combines exercise and academics, practicing spelling words with her son while the two of them take a walk.
Some educators say they notice a difference, too.
Ken Endris, the principal at Fouke Elementary in Arkansas, where state law requires elementary students to get 150 minutes of physical activity (including physical education and recess) each week, says most kids enjoy activity breaks — and their teachers appreciate them as well.
“Teachers say the kids are more alert when they come to the classroom,” says Endris, a former PE teacher.
Organized sports not always the best answer
So if your child’s school is lacking in PE and recess, should you hurry to sign your kid up for sports this fall? Not necessarily. While sports certainly can help kids to shape up, regular free play — at the playground or your backyard — may work just as well, or even better.
In another study presented at the meeting, researchers found that kids engaged in more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during non-competitive play than during competitive elimination games.
The research involved 29 children in grades four to six whose physical activity levels were assessed during two sessions of elimination games (such as tag, in which a tagged child had to sit out the rest of the game) and two sessions of non-elimination games (such as a modified version of tag, in which a tagged child could come back into the game after doing five jumping jacks).
“As you might expect, when you eliminate children from games, they’re less active because they’re sitting on the sidelines,” says study author David Dzewaltowski, head of the department of kinesiology at Kansas State University.
The same can happen with organized youth sports, he says, where kids may spend a lot of time on the bench, particularly if they aren’t among the star players. And some sports, such as soccer, generally involve more overall activity than others, such as baseball.
But even kids who don’t get much game time can get a lot of physical activity during well structured practices. Dzewaltowski urges parents to observe a couple practice sessions before signing a child up to make sure players aren’t standing around much of the time. A good coach, he says, keeps the kids moving with multiple training stations so they aren’t waiting in line to kick or hit a single ball.
Dodge ball doesn't keep kids moving
Parents also can talk with gym teachers about incorporating different types of activities into class. Dodge ball, while a perennial PE favorite, is a classic elimination game that rewards the most skilled, often the jocks who are already fit.
Still, some exercise is better than none, which is why health and fitness experts are so concerned about kids getting less physical activity during the school day.
“You’re cutting off your nose to spite your face here,” says Pivarnik. “It’s pretty short-sighted.” The ACSM is pushing for more physical activity in schools, as is fitness guru Richard Simmons.
As a 268-pound high schooler who sat on the sidelines during sports and ate other students’ lunches, Simmons knows all too well about the challenges of being “the fat kid.” So when he testified before Congress recently about the need for more physical activity in schools, he said that like him, all kids can’t make the cut in sports, but all children can — and need — to move.
“Everyone is not a jock,” he told Congress. “Everyone cannot play sports. Everyone cannot run. But everyone can be fit.”
Jacqueline Stenson is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. A former senior health producer for msnbc.com, her work also has appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Times, Health, Shape, Women’s Health, Fit Pregnancy and Reuters Health.