When children and adolescents participate in the recommended level of physical activity — at least 60 minutes daily — multiple health benefits occur. Most youths, however, do not engage in recommended levels of physical activity. Regular physical activity builds healthy bones and muscles, improves muscular strength and endurance, reduces the risk for developing chronic disease risk factors, improves self-esteem, and reduces stress and anxiety. Beyond these known health effects, physical activity may also have beneficial influences on academic performance.
Children and adolescents engage in different types of physical activity, depending on age and access to programs and equipment in their schools, playgrounds, parks and communities. Elementary school-age children should be encouraged to engage in free play, running and chasing games such as tag, jumping rope and age-appropriate sports and activities that are aligned with their stage of fundamental motor skills development. For adolescents, the development of complex motor skills enables them to engage in active recreation (e.g., kayaking, mountain/trail biking, rollerblading), resistance exercises with weights or weight machines, individual sports (e.g., running, bicycling), and team sports (e.g., basketball, baseball, football, soccer). But only 17.1 percent of U.S. high school students meet current recommendations for physical activity.
There is a growing body of research focused on the association between both school-based and out-of-school physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. Studies suggest that physical activity may have an impact on academic performance through a variety of direct and indirect physiological, cognitive, emotional, and learning mechanisms. Research on brain development indicates that cognitive development occurs together with motor ability. Studies show that physical activity can be related to many different aspects of academic performance, including cognitive skills and attitudes, academic behaviors, and academic achievement.
Cognitive skills and attitudes include both basic cognitive abilities, such as executive functioning, attention, memory, verbal comprehension, and information processing, as well as attitudes and beliefs that influence academic performance, such as motivation, self-concept, satisfaction, and school connectedness. Academic behaviors include a range that may have an impact on students’ academic performance, such as on-task time management, organization, planning, attendance, and impulse control. Academic achievement includes standardized test scores (such as the Florida Standard Assessment, and previously the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) in subject areas such as reading, math, and language arts; GPAs; classroom test scores; and other formal assessments.
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In a comprehensive review by the CDC in 2013, researchers reported that increasing time during the school day for physical activity does not appear to take away from academic performance. Summary findings showed that for younger children recess was associated with improvements in attention, concentration, and/or on-task classroom behavior. For older students, GPA was positively associated with extracurricular physical activity. Two studies also examined the association between extracurricular activities and dropout rates and found that participation was linked to decreased high school dropout rates.
Previous collaborative studies performed at the University of Miami in partnership with the Osceola School District showed that over a two-year period, children attending intervention schools that received increased physical activity were significantly more likely to have higher FCAT math scores than were children in the control schools, regardless of ethnic background. Although not statistically significant, a similar trend was found for FCAT reading scores. Similarly, weight decreases were noted in the intervention schools compared with the control school. These findings indicate that school-based interventions targeting obesity prevention via increased physical activity can have indirect positive effects on academic performance among low-income children who are at high risk for both obesity and poor academic achievement.
We are fortunate to live in an area where we can enjoy the outdoors year round, so don’t be afraid to try out new activities on the weekends together as a family. If parents have a positive attitude about the benefits of being physically active, their children most likely will too. Even if a child is not inclined to participate in competitive sports, this does not mean they can’t enjoy being physically active, whether in out-of-school recreation programs, or with friends and family in the evening and on weekends. For students who do not get any physical activity during the school day via recess or physical education class, allow them a 30-60 minute physical activity period when they get home from school, before they start homework. This time will actually re-energize them both physically and mentally so when they sit down to do their homework or study for a test, they are more alert and focused.
Our research among children of all ages shows that not only does regular exercise and activity increase physical and cardiovascular health, it can improve sleep; reduce stress, depression, and anxiety; increase attention, learning, and school performance; and minimize illness, all while maintaining a healthy weight. When combined with correct nutrition choices, the outcome is a happy and healthy child. What more could a parent ask for?
Sarah E. Messiah, Ph.D., MPH, is a research associate professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Division of Community-Based Research and Training at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.