It turns out that cutting recess and gym class to make room for more test prep is exactly the opposite of what helps students do well in school.
Elementary school kids who exercised for about an hour a day in an after-school program had better brain function and were more focused than students who didn’t get much physical activity, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
In the nine-month study of 7- to 9-year olds, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign randomly assigned 221 students to either a structured after-school fitness program or to a wait list for the program.
All the children were tested before and after the study period on a series of cognitive and executive control tasks such as memory, multitasking, and ability to resist distractions while focusing on a specific task. They also had fitness assessments.
The kids assigned to the after-school program attended for two hours a day, spending about an hour of that time in moderate-to-vigorous activities like tag, soccer or dribbling a basketball through an obstacle course, all while wearing heart-rate monitors and pedometers. They took breaks in between exercises to rest and eat healthy snacks.
While there has been quite a bit of research on the detrimental effects of physical inactivity in adults, not much is known about how it affects children, wrote the study’s authors. That’s worrisome because “childhood is characterized by extensive changes in brain structure, function, and connectivity,” so it’s important to know if physical activity is as good for children’s developing brains as it is for their bodies.
The study found significant differences between the two groups.
“Kids in the intervention group improved two-fold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks,” said research leader Charles Hillman, a kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois, in an interview published by his university. “And we found widespread changes in brain function, which relate to the allocation of attention during cognitive tasks and cognitive-processing speed.”
Those changes are depicted in the images below of electrical activity on the surface of the scalp taken at the beginning and end of the study. The increased brain activation shows “greater amounts of executive control” in the fitness group, explained Hillman.
As expected, kids in the exercise program also improved in overall fitness. But there was also an unanticipated outcome, their attendance rates improved.
Hillman and his colleagues say they hope their work will spark additional research to inform public policy.
“Given that scholastic success in reading and mathematics is heavily reliant upon effective executive control,” they write, “our findings have broad relevance for public health, the educational environment, and the context of learning.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.