As schools have felt increased pressure to increase their academic performance, particularly in light of “No Child Left Behind” federal legislation, they have limited opportunities for students to be physically active in favor of more time for academic instruction.
A new study, however, shows that this may have been the very opposite of the approach that they should have taken.
It turns out that good physical activity—physical education classes, after-school exercise programs, and even playing at recess—may increase a student’s ability to pay attention, resulting in better academic performance. In other words, if you want a child to pay attention, give him some time when he does not have to sit still.
While the study was small, results were notable. A group of 9 year olds were asked to complete exercises which demonstrated their cognitive control, which is a formal way of saying their ability to pay attention and focus on the task at hand.
One day the students rested for 20 minutes before testing, and on the next they walked on a treadmill for 20 minutes before testing. Students’ brain activity was also measured using an EEG.
Researchers found that after walking, the children did better on the exercises, especially as the tasks became more difficult. The EEG results showed that after walking, the students had increased P3 potential, which is a measure of how well you can pay attention when there are distractions present.
Researchers followed up the cognitive testing with actual academic achievement tests that measured abilities in spelling, reading, and math.
Again, the students did better after exercise, improving their scores by about a full grade level. Future studies will look at different forms of exercising and timing of the exercise and those effects on academic achievement.
The lesson for parents is clear: your children need physical activity to do their best. Talk with your child’s school officials and find out what kinds of provisions are being made for physical activity in your child’s school day.