Kids, Exercise & Academic Performance

by Esther Blum MS,RD,CDN,CNS
Every parent wants their child to do better in school, right?  The key to unlocking a child’s academic performance lies within a primal expression of movement: exercise.  And plenty of research shows that physical activity can have as much impact on a child’s brain as the body.

In a review of exercise studies published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, research revealed compelling evidence over 12 studies that children who participated in regular physical exercise achieved better academic performance (1).  Compelling, considering that The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report in which they indicated that an estimated 42% of Americans will be obese by the year 2030. That’s roughly an additional 32 million Americans who will become obese in the next 18-years.  Not only that, the proportion of severely obese Americans will reach roughly double the current rate, reaching an astounding 11%.

Exercise and the Brain
During exercise, oxygen and blood flow to the brain is increased, which also drives improvement in cognitive function.  Exercise also can help grow neurons by developing BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).  BDNF is found in areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and higher thinking.  A study done on middle-school kids showed that those who engaged in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three days a week achieved higher grades over two semesters than those who did not participate in intense exercise (2).  I would also imagine that burning off extra pent-up energy would also help kids sit still better in class and pay more attention!

This is also pretty cool: Brain scans done on more active children showed greater neural activity in the brain’s frontal lobe- a key area involved a child’s ability to organize, plan, problem solve, and concentrate (3).

Many schools already see the beneficial influence of regular exercise on academic performance.  A school district in Illinois developed a physical activity class for students struggling with reading and writing.  The students performed early morning exercises followed immediately by a literacy support class.  After just one semester, the students’ literacy development jumped 1.34 years in progress compared to 0.7 for students who only received literacy support.  The school district then expanded the program to include mathematics, and the participating students saw their algebras scores improve 20.4% (4)!

Exercise Beyond Gym Class
Playing for kids is the most natural thing in the world.  Unlike adults, kids don’t think about exercise as exercise, but more like playtime and good old-fashioned fun!  So appeal to their inner joy and keep them active as much as possible.

Play outside with your child.  Join the fun and make exercise a family affair.  If your child likes to ride a bike, jog along next to him or her.  I love to strap on rollerblades and race my son down the street.  Kills two birds with one stone!  A nature walk is another great way to build exercise around a learning experience.  Tossing a ball back and forth, playing baseball, basketball or soccer, throwing and running for a Frisbee, or a relay race is great fun for the whole family.

Make it a joyful experience.
  Build your child’s coordination and make exercise a challenge.  Set up mini obstacle courses for your child to complete.  It will build adeptness and challenge the mind.

Enroll your child in exercise classes.  If your child is a climber, give gymnastics a whirl.  During the winter, toss on some ice skates and head to a skating rink.  You can’t beat swimming lessons in the summer, along with paddle boarding, rock climbing, or kayaking.

Build your child’s confidence. The more exercise you expose your child to, the greater the skill set your child can develop.

1.    Physcial Activity and Performance at School. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;166(1):49-55.

2.    Effect of Physical Education and Activity Levels on Academic Achievement in Children. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. August 2006, Vol 38, Issue 8. Pp 1515-15    19.
3.    Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Overnight Children’s Cognitive Function: A Randomized Controlled Trial.  Research Quarterly of Exercise and Sport 78(5): 510-9.
4.    Exercise Seen as Priming Pump for Students Academic Strides.  Education Week Feb 12, 2008.
© 2012 Poliquin