As schools continue to cut physical education from the mandatory curriculum to reduce costs, research is progressively showing the importance of daily physical activity in the development of young children’s cognitive abilities. For example, a new study implemented at the University of Tennessee and published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found a strong correlation between higher fitness measures and greater academic achievement among middle school students. The students who were in better shape were found to earn superior overall grades and higher scores on standardized exams. The study is among the first to examine how academic achievement relates to all aspects of physical fitness including endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition. “Not only does improving fitness have physical health implications for the child, it also has implications for their academic achievement,” said Dawn Coe, assistant professor in the UT Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies, and the lead researcher on the study.
Previous research has certainly demonstrated the positive impact exercise can have on brain function among any population. Scientific reviews suggest that aerobic exercise is crucial for getting a head start during childhood because of its relationship to the development of key cognitive abilities. Essentially, physical inactivity is associated with poorer academic performance and results on standard neuropsychological tests; on the other hand, regular exercise appears to improve memory, attention span, and decision-making. These effects extend to both young and elderly adults as well, with strong evidence for aerobic training benefiting executive functions such as multi-tasking and planning. Furthermore, adequate amounts of structured aerobic training seem to increase the volume of brain structures imperative to memory. Although few studies have evaluated the effects of strength training on brain health among children, studies on older adults suggest that high-intensity and high-load training can improve memory. Of additional note, daily moderate-intensity activity is known to be extremely beneficial for reducing anxiety, depression, and symptoms associated with numerous psychological ailments among adults. Animal studies suggest a variety of mechanisms responsible for these effects. In these experiments, exercise appears to change brain structure, prompting the growth of new nerve cells and blood vessels. It also increases the production of neurochemicals such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), both of which promote growth, survival, and repair of brain cells.
These concepts are important to consider alongside the findings of the new research regarding middle school students. Coe explains, “We know a lot of schools are cutting out physical education classes and physical activity opportunities throughout the day. Some of my previous research showed that if kids have one hour of physical education during the day instead of an academic class, they did not show a decrease in academic achievement compared with students who received an extra hour of academic instruction per day. By being active, they could potentially raise their grades.” Coe examined 312 sixth- through eighth-graders from a public school in western Michigan. She conducted a series of assessments including shuttle runs, curl-ups, and push-ups. She then measured the children’s academic achievement in four core classes over the course of one school year as well as their performance on a standardized test. She found that the students with the highest fitness levels performed better on the standardized exam and earned better grades. “Youth who are engaged in a physically active lifestyle reap benefits not only in their physical health but also in other aspects of their well-being, such as mental health and academic performance,” her report states. It seems that with children, physical activity will not only assist in optimal brain development, but will also enhance psychological well-being, which translates into greater confidence and academic performance.