Physical Activity May Improve Kids' Academic Performance

Increased physical activity appears to improve kids' academic performance, report Dutch researchers based on a review of 14 previous studies on the subject.

In recent years, many school systems have cut gym class and recess out of the academic curriculum due to reduced funding and the pressure to improve test scores. The findings of a recent review of past studies, however, suggest that reduced physical activity may be harming youngsters’ academic performance.

Researchers at Vrije Universiteit University Medical Center in the Netherlands reviewed 14 prospective studies (10 observational and four interventional) carried out between 1990 and 2010, all of which examined the physical activity of children alongside their grades or scores on math, language, and general thinking and memory tests.

In the 10 observational studies, researchers obtained information on students’ physical activity from parents, teachers, and/or the students themselves, and then the students’ academic performance was monitored for a period of months to years. In each of the four interventional studies, researchers compared the academic scores of children who were given extra time for exercise with those who were not.

The researchers in the current study found that, in the observational studies, kids who spent more time engaged in physical activity had better grades. In three of the four interventional studies, the researchers found that students who received more time to exercise had higher academic scores than students who did not.

“Based on the results of the best-evidence synthesis, we found evidence of a significant longitudinal positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance,” write the researchers in the study’s abstract.

A previous study found that kids were unlikely to get enough physical activity in school unless they lived in a state that mandated recess and gym class. Just six states require at least two-and-a-half hours of gym class per week, while the American Heart Association recommends that children over the age of two get at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

Amika Singh, PhD, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health that her team’s findings indicate the need for physical activity both during the school day and at home. "Maybe it's an activity break, stand up every half an hour in class and do something,” she said. "It might mean going to school by bike.... Any kind of physical activity you can think of. It doesn't mean only the physical education standard class."

The researchers also expressed the need for additional high-quality studies to confirm their findings, particularly studies that “thoroughly examine the dose-response relationship between physical activity and academic performance as well as explanatory mechanisms for this relationship.”

This study was published in the January issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.