Exercise and School Success

By Carol C. Wood Founder & CEO Total Learning Concepts, Inc.

Is there a correlation between physical exertion and academic success? Many educators speculate that by limiting the amount of exercise breaks for students during the school day, we hamper their potential in the classroom. It is difficult for schools to allot time during the school day for exercise activities along with core academic areas; such as reading, writing, math, science, social studies, foreign language and technology. So, as parents, it is important that we encourage, and perhaps even require, our children to participate in some form of physical exercise after school hours.

As our society has evolved into one of technology, modern medicine, and the use of advanced tools and equipment, we are more sedentary in our lifestyle than our ancestors were. This has resulted in not only weight problems for many, but research finds there is a strong correlation between physical activity and brain function. This finding helps us solve another challenge in our schools and homes; that of poor student academic performance.

In the 2008 book written by John Medina, Brain Rules, he describes 12 rules of how the brain works. The first rule he discusses is, “Exercise boosts brain power.” Medina supports this rule with real-life cases and science, revealing many research studies that prove that regular exercise, even if only two times each week, is beneficial and offers significant advantages. Physical activity is proven to boost a person’s memory and increase his or her problem solving abilities, critical reasoning, and attention span. All of these are necessary for success in the classroom!

A researcher, Antronette Yancey, studied the effect that physical activity has on children and found that physically fit and/or active children are better able to identify visual stimuli faster, concentrate better, and pay attention to a task for longer periods of time than students who are physically inactive. And, when exposed to physical education classes, students perform better on core tests! Yancey’s findings also concluded that, aside from academic benefits, physically fit and/or active children have fewer incidences of depression, anxiety, and negative behaviors.

Yet another study was conducted and subsequently concluded in May 2011 by Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, from the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital. This study involved 1st through 6th graders at an academically low elementary school in Charleston, S.C. and found that, after the students participated in 40 minutes of activity each day, five days a week (as opposed to their usual 40 minutes per week), the number of students who reached proficiency on the year-end state tests went from 55 percent to 68.5 percent! Wow! This is significant!

Also in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, he cites a study that measured the brain power of “couch potatoes,” exercised them for a period of time, and then retested their brain power. These researchers found consistently that when inactive people began an aerobic exercise program, their mental abilities came back to life in as little as four months. A similar study examined the brain power of children as they began an exercise program of jogging for 30 minutes two or three times a week. After 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly. However, perhaps just as important, when the exercise program was taken away, children’s scores plummeted back to pre-activity levels. This rise and fall of achievement in adults and children is the direct result of the brain receiving more or less oxygen.

These studies and more like them prove that physical activity is not only critical to the physical well-being of children, but also to their academic performance and school success. We can now feel optimistic about the long term benefits that exercise has on our children’s overall well-being!