How Exercise Makes Your Kids Better Students

One of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind and other rising pressures on public schools is that physical education is being squeezed out of the school day. In an effort to meet the demands and testing benchmarks required of them, school administrators are allotting more time to subjects like reading and math and less time to recess and PE.

You only have to turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper to learn that pediatricians and other experts think U.S. kids need to be more active. But the benefits go well beyond the avoidance of childhood obesity and diabetes. A growing body of research indicates that exercise and fitness are an important part of learning as well.

1. Increased attention span. In a study of nine-year-olds at the University of Illinois, researchers found that after 20 minutes on a treadmill, the children’s brains showed a greater ability to allocate attention resources. They were more able to gate out distractions (such as noise) and focus on a particular task.

2. Immediately boosted performance. The same study also analyzed how the children performed on an academic achievement test with and without the exercise regimen. Across the board, the children scored better on the test after exercise, with the biggest boost noticed in reading comprehension. Those scores increased by a full grade level post-exercise.

3. Higher test scores and grades. A 2012 study at Michigan State University looked at middle school students and how their overall fitness correlated to their longer-term academic performance. Students were first tested for fitness with an established comprehensive program of push-ups, shuttle runs, and other exercises. When the fitness scores were compared against the same students’ letter grades throughout the school year in four core courses plus a standardized test, they found that the fittest children got the highest test scores and the best grades.

4. Better emotional health. Numerous studies have indicated that exercise and participation in sports are associated with better emotional health and increased optimism in children. This type of emotional health can benefit them in the classroom, especially when faced with a challenging task.

5. Improved sleep. According to the National Institutes of Health, kids who get at least one hour of physical activity each day sleep better at night. That deep, restorative sleep is important to good academic performance.