Cross-posted from Bryan Toporek of Schooled in Sports.
Higher levels of aerobic fitness can bolster a child’s ability to learn and remember information, according to a new study published online today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
Forty-eight 9- and 10-year-old children (26 females, 22 males) participated in the study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which required them to learn the names of specific regions on two separate maps. The children were separated into higher-fitness and lower-fitness groups (24 children each) based on their performance on a VO2max test, which measures aerobic fitness.
The study participants initially learned the information on each of the two maps in different ways: either strictly studying the map or interlacing studying with testing of the map’s regions and locations. The researchers discovered that overall, the interspersed-studying-and-testing method helped children of all fitness levels learn and retain the information better than the studying-only method.
When it came to fitness, the higher-fit children outperformed lower-fit children in terms of recalling map regions learned using the study-only condition. However, higher- and lower-fit children performed similarly in recall of the regions learned using the test-study condition, the researchers found.
“These data might be interpreted to suggest that higher levels of fitness have their greatest impact in the most challenging situations,” the study authors opine.
The researchers also observed no differences in terms of initial learning between the higher- and lower-fit study participants, providing “important boundary conditions on fitness effects on cognition.” In essence, while a child’s initial ability to learn information may not be affected by their fitness level, his or her ability to recall that information later appears directly correlated with their aerobic fitness.
Based on their findings, the authors suggest that education policymakers shouldn’t be so quick to eliminate physical activity from the school day.
“Reducing or eliminating physical education in schools, as is often done in tight financial times, may not be the best way to ensure educational success among our young people,” they say.
These findings mesh with previous research, such as a December 2012 study from the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, which found that middle school students in prime physical shape were able to outperform their overweight and obese peers both on tests and grades. A June 2012 study published in the journal Child Development also found students who were persistently obese throughout elementary school performed significantly worse on math tests than their peers of healthy weight.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.