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Of brawn and brain

Can kids sweat their way to academic excellence?

By Carol Lloyd

“Healthy body, healthy mind.” The concept couldn’t be simpler. Or older. Ancient Greeks made the body-mind connection central to their culture: Scholars ran marathons, and athletes engaged in Socratic dialogues.

Yet in our dubious wisdom, contemporary Americans have built an empire on the brain-body disconnect. We’ve designed cities exclusively for driving, and family housing without backyards or walkable/bikable streets. With mandates to improve scores, raise standards and save money, our schools have slashed PE and shortened recess. Not surprisingly, our children are far more sedentary than previous generations. The 24-7 lure of the screen no doubt compounds the problem. According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, kids ages 8 to 18 now spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day using entertainment media.

The neuroscience of feeling the burn

For decades researchers have explored how exercise can delay cognitive decline in the elderly and Alzheimer’s patients. But for Charles Hillman, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the focus on elderly, already impaired patients seemed to miss the point. “Right around when my son was born, I started thinking about how it didn’t make sense that we were waiting until people were 60 years old to intervene,” he says. “We started looking at 7- to 10-year-olds and turned the table on early intervention.”

Using a type of EEG that records the brain’s electrical signals, Hillman and his research labs have been able to isolate how certain kinds of fitness and exercise influence children’s thinking. The results have been eye-opening.

“After exercise, kids have greater amounts of attention, respond more correctly to decisions, and perform more efficiently,” Hillman explains. Lately the labs have teamed up with the local school district to implement a series of applied research programs, which focus on the cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise. Other studies have found that when it comes to brain functioning, not all exercise is created equal: Aerobic exercise improves test scores in math and reading, while strength training and stretching appear to have no impact.

The case for keeping PE

“The idea of cutting out PE from the school day makes no sense,” says Hillman, citing studies that show that adding an hour of physical education to the school day allows students to get an equal amount of work done — despite the break from classroom learning. “Kids did equally as well, and so it’s a win-win since ultimately you’re building a healthier individual.”

It’s long been known that fitness levels correlate with higher academic performance, but correlation does not mean causation. Perhaps the parents who make sure their children exercise are also more likely to help with their homework. Or perhaps the kids who excel in sports are similarly competitive (and therefore successful) in the classroom.

Hillman’s research explores a different idea altogether: That no matter the child’s fitness level, weight, or academic standing, a single bout of exercise can yield measurable cognitive benefits as well. In one 2009 study of elementary school students published in Neuroscience, Hillman and his fellow researchers found that a single 20-minute, moderately intensive walk led to improved accuracy, memory, and attention one hour later. It also improved reading comprehension.

What can parents do, even if they work full-time and their kids' schools provide little in the way of exercise? “You have to build as much PE into the school day,” says Hillman. “That means walking and taking the stairs as well as PE and recess. Also, teachers and parents need to remember they are role models, and we want to act in a way that we want [children] to behave.”

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/4/2010:
"Exercise in our children is vital. I agree with this article. Here in NJ, on cold winter days I still let my sons use our trampoline afterschool when I know they were not let outside for recess time. (yes hats & jackets on) Its great cardio for them and fun on those dismal days spent mostly indoors. Just like food fuels the mind for learning, good nutrition and exercise are partners in success."
03/4/2010:
"Correction to an earlier post...the title of Richard Louv's book is 'Last Child in the Woods,' but it started the 'No Child Left Inside' movement"
03/3/2010:
"I strongly support this article, in fact, I personally believe that exercise and physical activity are very important for boosting the learning in children as well as adults. "
03/3/2010:
"I also think P.E. is great and should not be dicontinued. The thought of it not being graded makes sense, it should be a requirement but not judged on how well they do (some children are much more physically inclined than others). "
03/3/2010:
"Great article! Makes me reconsider our after-school regimen where I have my son immediately sit down for homework when he gets home from school because it takes him an avg. of 4 hours to get it done! I'm going to start implementing some ideas to get his blood and lungs pumping on the way home and see how this helps. (He is also under an IEP for ADD at his school.) "
03/3/2010:
"Thank you for this article. I read this article and instantly wanted to hug my children - because I do want my children to be balanced in their lives - I see the move from exercise and physical activity creating fat lazy people and a general atrophy. I have done better in all aspects of my academic social and professional life when my daily and weekly routine involved sustained physical activity. excellent"
03/3/2010:
"Excellent article and advice. Kids should start every school day with some physical exercise, even if it is just a brisk walk. They need aerobic exercise and to get outdoors, rain or shine. A great book on this topic: 'Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,' by John J. Ratey, MD."
03/3/2010:
"I think P.E. is great but I also think it should be a credit no credit class not a letter grade because kids tend to place their worth on their grades and each child is different health wise and fitness wise. P.E. should be a fun class not a military style workout. I don't know maybe things are just different then when I was a kids. I loved P.E. and it was an easy 'A' for me but my son is having difficulties and I don't understand why because he is very active but has asthma. My vote is for P.E. to stay but not for a letter grade."
03/3/2010:
"I don't know about you but, I am so tired of hearing about the budget, here is some things that came in mind, and please let me know what you think, you may not agree with me but, I see so many people out there going thru so much stress, families are breaking apart, from so much unemployment I don't know what we us people can do, can we be heard, even if we don't have a phd? We have to stop blaming anyone about the economy, why can’t we see the bigger picture to our unfortunate crisis? Instead of targeting the smallest areas, such as cutting the budget in Schools, and lay off people and the outcome to this is raising the numbers of unemployment every day!! Tell me who is responsible in sending (allocating) all our money (billions) to other countries? Why do we continue to raise money for other countries, when we should be taking care of our own first? We are human kind too, and yes we should help, with food, and medication, but that is it can we just contribute to a small ! percentage, we have a budget to take care of first her at home!! Why are we still fighting, how much money (billions) is going to the war, how much does the USA has to spend (billions) in building those countries, we have destroyed, if any country is with problems, so let them be, let them take care of their own problem, if they want to be in a fight let them kill each other, but don’t let USA get into someone else business!! Let’s take care of our people in America, lets focus on our country's and people need first, let's fight for all the right reasons!!"
03/2/2010:
"I actually think PE is totally useless. Most PE classes have offered me nothing, the class sizes are so big the teacher's never notice if you're doing push-ups, and sit-ups correctly (until test day). Most PE teachers love the athletes, and act like if you're fat you're useless. Only the athletic girls try in PE (unless they have friends in the class). Most boys do participate, but they face competition with more athletic boys (normally the ball hogging type). The only class I've ever gotten a real work-out was JROTC (though, they're extremely sick) or doing a sport. In my middle school, they created a fitness center. It was basically a mini-gym, you made a group of four with your friends, and move from station to station. If you were actually in a productive group then you'd a good work out. If not, then you pretend you're working hard or else she makes you run a mile (sadly, our teacher was easily fooled). Though, I'm sure some schools have a good PE program. I've heard of schools with extremists teachers, but he actually kept kids healthy and active. Cutting recess is a stupid idea though, most younger kids do make the best of it."
03/2/2010:
"Your article is very interesting and also true. I have two boys who exercise regularly with both my husband and I. We are runners and are trying to get our children to run too. What i do not exactly agree with, is the 'role model' part. Our boys have seen as running and racing since they were born, yet the passion is not there. They do other sports also (golfing and sailing) and we are still searching for the 'one they will love'....... They do exercise because it is what we do, and I really would love for our example as 'role Models' to be enough encouragement and motivation. So not always they will love the sport just because you love it and have been modeling that behavior."
03/2/2010:
"Keeping Gym class is a BIG PLUS!!! Kids need the excersize !!!! "
03/2/2010:
"That is the hard part I have had weight issues and it is hard to try and tell yur child to do one thing and you are doing another. I have started Jazzercise. My life growing up my mother would say I culd look so much better if I just lost some weight. I try not to say things like that to my daughter. he is very tall for her age 4'-9' at age eight so therefore a little bigger. It is hard."
03/2/2010:
"Check out Richard Louv's popular book, No Child Left Inside, for more about the benefits of outdoor recreation and 'nature deficit syndrome' which are related topics. We can fix some of the educational problems that we've created for our children with simple means. Plus these good health tips are good for adults too!"
03/2/2010:
"Honestly I don't go along with most articles I read but I have to say that this makes perfect sense. Everyone that exercises knows how much clearer and alert your body and mind feels afterward. Finally some research that may actually offer a solution instead of just adding a new problem."
03/2/2010:
"I love this article, I had to take my 7 yr old 2nd grader to doctor yesterday because teacher complains everyday that he has add. His doc say borderline at my sons school they are rebuliding they have no play ground anymore and they only have p.e. one day a week.I have already tapped in to the idea that this is a problem my son dwell,s on the fact that they cant play. His teacher never wants to go outside because now there is no place really for the teacher,s to sit and conversate while the kid,s are playing.Help what should I do? The doctor is wanting to put my son on an antidepressant first to see if that will help him I am very conflicted about this.His doctor is a genius and she said she has a major problem with what these kids are haviny to learn at such a young age, and that it will not yeild more kid,s graduating and being sucsessful in the future. I was relived to hear her say it because i have been very upset about what Malachi is having to try to do at 7yrs old. Ma! th is the hardest!But teacher complains about his hand writing and the doctor said hah he writes better than my 9yr old daughter, that has adhd and is on medication, but still has major problem's but also is in gifted program.She says more parent's need to get involved and try to get something done about it she has notified people in Atlanta, Ga about her thoughts on problem's that are arising because of the very high exspection's of people sittin up there in the office's.How big of a problem do you'll see with todays academic issue's? HELP!!"
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