how exercise can help children better learn

In one recent experiment, kids who ordinarily performed poorly on attention tasks improved their accuracy when tested shortly after “moderate acute exercise” – 20 minutes of walking on a treadmill (Drollette et al 2014).

Another experiment randomly assigned 56 school kids to one of three morning school sessions:

sitting all morning
getting a 20-minute break of physical activity after 90 minutes; and
getting two 20-minute physical activity bouts, one at the start and after 90min
The kids who got two bouts of morning exercise performed better on a test of attention, and this was true even after the researchers adjusted for baseline differences in attention and children’s involvement in sports

Studies suggest that physical exercise yields short- and long-term benefits on achievement in the classroom.

For instance, one experiment found that a 20 minute session of walking boosted children’s subsequent performance on tests of reading, spelling, and arithmetic (Hillman et al 2009a). Another study found that kids who exercised 10-20 minutes prior to a math test outperformed kids in sedentary control group (Howie et al 2015).

And the long-term? As noted above, one randomized study found that kids showed improved mathematics skills after a 13-week exercise program (Davis et al 2011), and other research indicates similar benefits.

In an experiment performed by Daniel Ardoy and colleagues on 67 adolescents, some kids were assigned to get 4 sessions each week of high intensity PE. After four months, these kids performed better than other kids on tests of cognitive ability and earned higher grades at school (Ardoy et al 2014). Adolescents assigned to less intense PE workouts showed no showed no cognitive improvements over kids in the control group

A safe bet…but make it fun

Can we assume that exercise will help every child perform better in school? Perhaps not. In some studies of aerobic exercise, the reported effects have been small or non-existent. As Caitlin Lees and Jessica Hopkins (2013) argue, we need more rigorous research to better understand what’s going on. We need to learn more about the details – including how the effects vary by intensity, frequency, and type of exercise being performed.

But the results aren’t “mixed” in the sense that we don’t know if exercise is good or bad for the brain. Clearly, it’s good for the brain. Nor are the results “mixed” in the sense that we don’t know if exercise during the school day helps or hurts academics.

When researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 59 studies published over the previous 60 years, they found that physical activity has a decidedly positive effect on children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes (Fedewa and Ahn 2011).