The Smartest Students

Why exercise improves kids' test scores

Want to help your child do better in school? After homework, take your son for a bike ride, or play a game of catch.

Charles Hillman, a professor at the University of Illinois, is a leading researcher on how exercise impacts test scores — and he practices what he studies.

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“My family and I are very active,” he told LifeZette. “We are a hockey household. My son and I both play. We hit the gym, run, mountain bike, and my wife loves yoga. Leading a healthy life is challenging in today’s world, but also rewarding. Not to mention, the data from my lab (and other labs) speaks against the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype.”

His team found that kids who lagged in physical fitness assessments also did poorly on state achievement tests. Why might this be?

Related: The Truth about Exercise

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“This is a tough question, as academic performance involves many aspects of cognition,” he said. “Generally speaking, physical activity has been linked to beneficial changes in brain structure and function at the molecular, cellular, systems, and behavioral levels.”

Sarah Buck, an associate professor in physical education at Chicago State University, said there are myriad reasons.

“Research has shown repeatedly that children who are more physically active score better on academic achievement tests. Theories (on this) include increased oxygen flow to the brain, an increase in neurotransmitters, and/or an increase in brain-derived neurotrophin factors,” she said.

“One of the most interesting bits of research to come out in the last five years relates to brain activity in healthy weight versus obese children. There appears to be different brain activity in the obese children (compared to healthy weight), resulting in poorer cognitive task performance. One study even found smaller hippocampal (responsible for memory) volume in obese children compared to healthy weight,” Buck said.

Related: How to Exercise at Work

She also pointed out the optimistic preliminary findings about physical exercise in ameliorating mental handicaps. To date, the vast majority of studies have focused on typically “normal” children.

“However, there is a line of research that has looked at children with ADHD symptoms and children on the autism spectrum,” Buck said.

She cites a study in which “one 20-minute exercise session improved response accuracy and cognitive processing for children both with and without ADHD symptoms, and both groups showed increased performance following exercise on math and reading tests.”

“It is difficult for students to sit still for too long. They either get wiggly or they zone out.”

The upshot: “Exercise might be considered as a non-pharmaceutical treatment for children exhibiting symptoms of either ADHD or autism.”

Since nearly a third of students aren’t getting the minimum hour of exercise each day, considered essential by the National Institutes of Health, any education reform geared toward improving academic excellence ought to include physical fitness as part of the equation. Unfortunately, trends in physical education are emphasizing non-exercise components, such as mindfulness and nutrition.

Related: P.E. Now a No-Sweat Zone

However, grade-school students aren’t the only ones to potentially benefit from getting the heart rate pumping. Buck puts her findings to the test in the college courses she teaches.

“It is difficult for students to sit still for too long. They either get wiggly or they zone out. This is true regardless of the age of the student,” she said. “When I see my college students start to zone out, we take two laps around the building. It energizes them, which allows us to come back into the classroom and refocus.”

You don’t have to be a student to reap better brain benefits from increased activity.

“Humans are made to be kinetic; we like to move,” Buck said. “This is the basis of classroom-based physical activity lessons. There is something about learning and moving at the same time.”

This article was originally created by the Dole Nutrition Institute, with additions and updates by LifeZette.

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