• Evidence Shows Aerobically Fit Children Perform Better Academically

    Evidence Shows Aerobically Fit Children Perform Better Academically

    When it comes to being healthy and living an optimal life – for both children and adults- most of us know how important regular exercise is. The evidence is immense connecting exercise and improved health and wellness. Now new research is indicating that exercise is critical for children’s academic achievement in addition to their health.

    Research from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, led by Laura Chaddock-Heyman, fellow director Art Kramer and kinesiology and community health professor Charles Hillman provides the most recent data indicating possible connections between aerobically fit children and higher academic achievement, in particular mathematics.

    The study, “The Role of Aerobic Fitness in Cortical Thickness and Mathematics Achievement in Preadolescent Children”, was conducted at Beckman Institute and involved 48 children who first took part in a treadmill exercise to determine their level of aerobic fitness. Half of the group was ‘higher-fit’ children (at or above the 70th percentile for aerobic fitness); the other half were considered ‘lower-fit’ children (at or below the 30th percentile for aerobic fitness).
    All 48 children’s brains were imaged with MRI’s. Next their math, reading and spelling skills were tested with the Wide Range Achievement Test-3. Differences were found between higher and lower-fit kids in cortical brain structures. The differences found were in the gray matter in the cerebrum. These differences in gray matter have been found to have a positive impact on academic performance in youth, especially mathematics.

    Pruning Gray Matter Supports Healthy Brain Function

    Gray matter typically ‘thins’ or ‘prunes’ during childhood. This ‘neural pruning’ during childhood and adolescence is a normal occurrence and considered to be healthy maturation of the brain. When gray matter in the brain ‘thins’ it is theorized to be getting rid of weak, unneeded connections while strengthening more important ones.

    These changes in the brain seem to be vital to stronger mental functioning and academic achievement in youth.

    Laura Chaddock-Heyman (lead of the August 2015 study) explained the studies’ findings,
    “We show, for the first time, that aerobic fitness may play a role in this cortical thinning. In particular, we find that higher-fit 9- and 10-year-olds show a decrease in gray-matter thickness in some areas known to change with development, specifically in the frontal, temporal and occipital lobes of the brain.”

    In a study, “Aerobic Fitness is Associated with Greater White Matter Integrity in Children”, published by the same group in August 2014, it was found that children who were aerobically fit had more fibrous and compact white matter connections in the brain than their peers who were not as fit.

    White matter in the brain acts as communication channels between the gray matter areas of the cerebrum as well as between the cerebrum and cerebellum. White matter is also where nerve connections are held in the brain. When these connections are healthy and strong, the brain functions at its optimal.

    Numerous Studies Support Fit Children and Stronger Academics

    This study continues to support the theory that fit children do better academically.
    Chaddock explained how the study on white matter in the brain impacts children’s brains,
    “Previous studies suggest that children with higher levels of aerobic fitness show greater brain volumes in gray matter brain regions important for memory and learning. Now for the first time we explored how aerobic fitness relates to white matter in children’s brains.”

    Together, these studies further support the evidence of the importance of physical activity in children’s daily lives. When exercise promotes thinning of gray matter and strengthens white matter connections, the results seem to be higher academic achievement in our youth.

    This research comes at a critical time for our youth. Schools are cutting physical education and exercise opportunities at an alarming rate. This evidence shows that not only are active and fit children healthier, less obese, and they are more successful in academics too.

    Charles Hillman, kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois said,
    “These findings arrive at an important time. Physical activity opportunities during the school day are being reduced or eliminated in response to mandates for increased academic time. Given that the rates of physical inactivity are rising, there is an increased need to promote physical activity. Schools are the best institutions to implement such health behavior practices, due to the number of children they reach on a daily basis. “

    This study is just the most recent supporting the theory that physically fit students perform better academically. However there have been numerous studies supporting the positive impact of physical activity on academic performance in school children over the past several years.

    A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2010 reported findings from a study in California on almost 2,000 children. The study revealed that those students found to be outside of the ‘healthy fitness zone’ (determined by taking longer than 12 minutes to run one mile) scored lower on state standardized tests than their fit counterparts.

    In Georgia, a study took 111 inactive, unfit kids between the ages of 7 to 11 and had them participate in a twenty minute after school exercise program. They also had a control group of 60 also overweight kids. After 13 weeks of afterschool physical activity, the initial group of children performed better than the control group on standardized math tests as well as mental tasks such as strategizing, organizing and planning.

    Daily Exercise Essential for Children’s Physical Health and Academic Achievement

    As the evidence continues to mount it makes sense to promote physical activity in all youth. Local school boards as well as state and national representatives should be presented with the results of these and other studies when determining how much time is allotted to physical fitness in the daily schedule of our students. Until changes are made in school children’s daily exercise time at school, it’s important to be sure the children in your life are physically active outside of school.
    Making exercise a family event and role modeling healthy living habits like exercise goes a long way with youth. Take a walk after dinner, pick a new spot to hike on weekends, and try an activity you never have before like paddle boarding, pickleball or whatever interests you. When it comes to engaging in physical activity, everyone wins!

    By Barb Cronin

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