The connection between mind and body is often given an important place in adult wellness programs, yet for children, that connection may be even more important. Elementary schools nationwide have reduced or eliminated recess times, and some public school districts have cut back on physical education classes as a way of reducing budgets. All in spite of overwhelming evidence from multiple studies showing that physical fitness is vital not only to children’s bodies, but also to their minds.
Dr. Trent A. Petrie, co-author of a study by the University of North Texas that was presented to the American Psychological Association, said, “Cardiorespiratory fitness was the only factor that we consistently found to have an impact on both boys’ and girls’ grades on reading and math tests … This provides more evidence that schools need to re-examine any policies that have limited students’ involvement in physical education classes.”
The Orlando Sentinel reported in 2009 on a survey of high school students conducted by the Seminole County Youth Commission. The students said their major concerns were drug and alcohol use, body image, and depression. Participation in sports and other physical activities has been shown to improve outcomes in all of these areas. In fact, physical fitness has been repeatedly shown to produce a wide variety of benefits for kids.
It is evident that regular physical activity and general fitness impact all aspects of students lives, well being and academic performance.
A study of nearly 12,000 public school students in Nebraska found that, regardless of their weight, students who were aerobically fit did better on the state’s standard math and reading tests than aerobically unfit students. And an Illinois study found that fit students outscored unfit students on memorization tasks by 15 percentage points. Poor health also leads to poor attendance, which would also affect learning. Such studies have been repeated many times over the last two decades, and the correlation between physical fitness and academic excellence appears consistently.
The authors of a study published in Journal of School Health in January 2009 noted that, at the time, the direction of causation was unclear. They suggested that the findings might show either that fit kids do better in testing, or that high academic achievers choose to be more fit. But subsequent studies have shown the former is certainly the case. A 2012 study that tracked students in West Virginia public schools over three years found that most of those who improved their health also improved their test scores.
An Active Living Research survey of multiple research studies found that “Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks.” One of the programs examined by ALR, the Action School in British Columbia, assigned some students who were performing below grade level to a physical activity program. Those students were more likely to see improved test scores than similar students not assigned to the program.
The ALR report also notes that the effects of activity were greater when the children’s activity was aerobic, like running, than when the activities were resistance exercises like sit-ups.
Team sports are usually associated with social benefits such as leadership, teamwork, and self-discipline. But such collaborative skills can also be developed in individual sports when students have peers participating in the same activity, and in physically active hobbies like hiking, dance, or martial arts. Common pursuit of goals often leads students to encourage and support one another. Participation in activities with their peers leads to camaraderie and development of new friendships.
A University of Michigan study found that physically active middle school students not only showed greater leadership skills, but also greater empathy, which is the ability to imagine situations from another person’s perspective. Empathy is necessary to healthy relationships in families, schools, teams, and in the workplace. It is therefore an important social skill for kids to develop.
Regular physical activity is critical to improving and maintaining children’s overall health. Kids in physical activity studies see improvement across every measurement of wellness, including heart and lung function and blood sugar levels. Although many in society focus on weight, studies increasingly show that activity produces health regardless of weight. In her book Secrets from the Eating Lab, Traci Mann reports that overweight people who are physically active are more healthy than underweight people who are sedentary. Activity, not weight, is the key to health.
And overall health in the body is critical to health of the brain. The FITKids study, performed in the Urbana School District in Illinois from 2009 to 2013, randomly assigned students to either a fitness program or to a waiting list. Children in the program not only showed improvements in their memory and overall health, but scans of their brains before and after the program showed increased brain activity, while in students who were on the waiting list, brain activity declined.
The process of setting goals and working to achieve them is essential to succeed in most physical activities, even those that are not competitive. Building those skills in early childhood will help kids succeed at upper levels of education as well as in the workplace as adults.
Discipline and self-motivation are also developed in the pursuit of sports and other physical activities, and have wide-ranging ramifications for success in every area of life.
Physical fitness can boost children’s emotional health in numerous ways. Setting, pursuing, and achieving goals boosts self-esteem. Mastering an art form such as dance or a sport like swimming also boosts feelings of self-worth. Confidence is often produced when students pursue a sport or active recreation, especially when they can measure their progress, such as hiking longer distances or achieving a new belt level in martial arts.
Regular exercise has been shown to combat depression, which is especially important for teens, who are at higher risk than younger children. With rates of teen depression increasing in recent years, this becomes an even greater concern. Teen athletes also have a lower risk of suicide than non-athletes.
Children who participate in sports and active recreation learn to deal with both success and failure, which prepares them for many aspects of life in their schools, communities, and future workplaces. The combined benefits of physical activity produce well-rounded children who are more resilient and confident.
Parents and educators need to understand the correlation between physical activity and academic performance, and encourage children to excel on both sides of the equation. If schools are not providing children with appropriate levels of physical activity, parents need to ensure the students get their exercise in some other way.
Resources for Parents
• Active Living Research
• BAM: Body and Mind
• How to Learn
• Kids Health
• National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability
• Presidential Youth Fitness Program
• Psych Central
• Wellness in the Schools
• Women’s Sports Foundation