How Does Physical Activity Affect Academic Performance?

Guest blog by Mary Costa, P.E. teacher at Martha Reid Leadership Academy in Mansfield ISD.

Our society is suggesting that students in every grade level in schools across the country are struggling in class. What is the reason? It’s not because they’re underachievers, they’re not smart, or they don’t care. It’s because we’re working against them. The longer children and teens are forced to sit and be still in their chairs, the harder it will be for them to learn. It is no secret that physical activity is necessary to a person’s well-being. Because children are continuously developing physically and emotionally, they are especially affected by the benefits of activity – and inversely, the negative effects of inactivity.

There is an abundance of research that proves that students need adequate amounts of physical activity throughout the school day—not only does it prevent obesity and obesity-related issues, but students also perform better academically.

Just ask the CDC, Columbia University, the New York City Health Department and Department of Education, the Universities of Illinois, West Virginia, and California. They’ve all published research that stands behind the need for physical education in the school system. The CDC states, “…physical activity can have an impact on cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior, all of which are important components of improved academic performance. These include enhanced concentration and attention as well as improved classroom behavior.”

And there’s more. Active Living Research says, “In some cases, more time in physical education leads to improved grades and standardized test scores.” In schools that are under government mandates to bridge the achievement gap (and when those mandates encourage “teaching to the test”), physical education can actually help improve students’ scores.

Exercise is Important to Development of Academic & Social Skills

Exercise directly impacts the behavior and development of the brain. “It is likely that the effects of physical activity on cognition would be particularly important in the highly plastic developing brains of youth,” according to a 2016 essay penned by Charles Basch of Columbia University.

He summarized how exercise and physical activity has a direct impact on the behavior and development of the brain and brain function:

Increased oxygen flow to the brain

Increased brain neurotransmitters
Increased neurotransmitters assure the survival of neurons in areas responsible for learning, memory, and higher thinking.

Physical activity has benefits beyond improved grades, too. Basch demonstrates current research and connects physical activity to absenteeism, drop-out rates, and social connectedness.

“Drop-out rates were lower for youth who consistently participated in interscholastic sports,” he writes, though he cautions that forcing kids to join sports won’t solve the drop-out problem that plagues many inner city schools, it simply may foster an environment of connectedness that could keep at-risk students attending school and gives students a sense of belonging.

According to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical activity has an impact on cognitive skills such as concentration and attention, and it also enhances classroom attitudes and behaviors, all of which are important components of improved academic performance.

A study from the University of Illinois showed that children who are physically fit are more likely to perform better in school and achieve higher grades.

Children participating in the study were given electroencephalograms (EEGs) to measure brain waves and how fast the brain responds to certain stimuli. Researchers found that the brain synapses of physically fit children fired faster and stronger, and as a result those children had better language skills.
The more physically fit children were not only better at reading, they were also better at reading passages with several grammatical errors. The researchers looked at the brainwave patterns that deal with language and the ability to spot errors in grammar. The fit children had strong results with both brain wave groups, and a better understanding of nonsensical or error-filled sentences.

The following is an example of the brain functioning after just 20 minutes of walking.  Getting kids to move helps strengthen and stimulate their brains. Therefore, so many recent research studies are showing increased fitness = improved academics.

 Note: The blue color represents inactivity in the brain (Source: University of Urbana) The chart below shows how more active kids are academically better students according to research connecting SAT scores with PE Fitnessgram results. It demonstrates a strong correlation between High Fitness Scores and High Academic Scores.  

When anyone says we can’t afford to have PE in our schools because it takes up too much time, as educators, it is our responsibility to let them know of all the research which conclusively shows how exercise builds brain cells and improves academics.  In Physical Education, simplyby elevating students’ heart rate we can lift their mood, beat stress, sharpen their intellect, and academically help them to function better

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