Why Physical Activity Is as Important as Math for Kids Success

Friday, May 18, 2018
Fatou Darboe

Image credit: The Washington Post

Every classroom has at least one impulsive child. That child that frequently gets into trouble, continuously expresses sincere remorse about their actions, only to repeat the behavior again.

Indeed, with child ADHD having a 5 percent prevalence, it is one of the most frequently diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorders in children. It causes high levels of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Children with ADHD are often disruptive in the classroom and at home, and are at a higher risk to develop anxiety, depression and learning disorders.

Those symptoms affect a child’s ability to function and achieve success (in childhood and later on in adulthood).

Especially since ADHD impairs executive function (a set of processes that enable us to manage ourselves and our resources in order to achieve a goal; think about it as the ability to organize, plan, have mental control and self-regulation) and motor skills (the ability to coordinate movements to achieve intended goals).

Is there any way they can learn? How can they achieve success?

Perhaps physical activity is the answer.

Can Physical Exercise Control ADHD?

The current treatment options for ADHD include central nervous stimulant medication and behavioral interventions. Those two options are backed by empirical research and are universally recognized as controls for ADHD symptoms.

However, up to 30 percent of children do not respond well to ADHD medications or are unable to cope with the side effects. Furthermore, the medications do not actually yield any long-term benefits: they are effective only during the period of their administration.

Image credit: Verywell mind

Behavioral interventions like behavioral parent training and behavioral classroom management are more effective in improving certain symptoms of ADHD than medication, but its effects are hard to maintain after the treatment stops.

Additionally, such interventions are costly, time-consuming and difficult to implement; and are generally less effective than medication. It also places a heavy burden on parents and teachers as they require long-term commitment.

ADHD is pervasive and chronic, and since treatment options are limited, researchers have been looking at approaches that can be used to complement existing ones. And even replace them. Researchers like Rūta Vyšniauskė of Vilnius University Children’s Hospital in Lithuania believe physical activity is a more promising intervention.

There are already findings from behavioral, neuroimaging, neurocognitive and physiological studies (which we will reference throughout this post) that suggest that physical exercise may temporarily improve the symptoms of ADHD and also affect the underlying physiological mechanisms and change the developmental trajectory of the brain.

It is generally agreed in science that moderate to vigorous exercise helps to improve executive function and motor control. Physical activity that involves complex, controlled movement and cognition has a greater impact than repetitive aerobic or treadmill exercises.

Image credit: Health.gov

The studies suggest that children with ADHD could benefit more from physical activity, since they have more room to improve, than healthy children.

Vyšniauskė’s study showed that physical activity had a moderate to large effect on improving ADHD symptoms in children and had a significant effect on raising their emotion and mood.

Another study, published in Obesity Reviews, also suggests that the most effective solution for an impulsive child is physical activity.

The researchers discovered that the brain is responsible for inhibitory control which regulates impulsive behavior. Perhaps more interesting, the researchers also found a link between neurocognitive functions in regards to eating behaviors and exercise.

That means that physical activity has a positive influence on impulsive eating and behavior – two reasons why schools should be interested in childhood obesity prevention in addition to calming down impulsive children in the classroom.

Here are more reasons (backed by research) why physical activity is as important as math for a child’s success.

Physical Activity is Medicinal

SPARK author, John Ratey, MD, says that we should think of exercise like medication. In that there is plenty of scientific literature out there on the benefits of exercise on performing executive functions like memory, sequencing and prioritizing which are essential for success in school and life in general.

Image credit: ADDitude

Physical exercise primes our brains for learning.

A lot of students have a defeatist attitude or inability to overcome and push through their past failures. Physical activity can remedy that.

Here’s why.

Physical activity produces endorphins (chemicals in the brain) that synchronize pleasure, mood and pain. An elevated mood can motivate students to overcome past failures and adopt new approaches to tackle challenges.

They will start to see new tasks they thought they weren't able to perform before as challenges instead of obstacles.

In addition to motivating students and helping them to change their mindset towards obstacles, physical activity can kill two birds with one stone: childhood obesity and poor academic performance.

Physical Activity and Childhood Obesity

Researchers of a study conducted in Georgia worked with 111 inactive and overweight children, aged 7 to 11. They placed them in an after-school exercise program and ensured that they were active for at least 20 minutes during the program.

An additional 60 kids who were also inactive and overweight were waitlisted for the program and served as controls.

After 13 weeks, the kids in the exercise program performed better than the controls on tests that evaluated for mental tasks like planning, organizing and strategizing; in addition to standardized math tests.

If you’re still not convinced, take a look at an intervention that was designed to combat obesity in Kansas.

The researchers in that initiative found a link between physical activity, obesity and learning. In the intervention, teachers at 14 elementary schools were trained to teach lessons that involved movement.

For example, some of the lessons required students to hop or run to letters on the floor to spell words or solve math problems by moving their bodies. Ten other schools served as controls and their teachers received no training.

The increased activity had positive effects on body weight and weight control. In the 14 schools where the program was fully implemented, 21.8 percent of children who were at risk for obesity moved into the normal range from body mass index (BMI) – a measure of weight that takes height into account – while 16.8 percent of at-risk kids moved to a normal BMI range in the control schools.

There is very little dispute that physical activity is good for kids. It has several benefits including developing muscles and fighting obesity. It also helps kids to socialize and learn new skills.

No wonder it was a key component of former first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. The campaign says that “children need 60 minutes of play with moderate to vigorous activity every day to grow up to a healthy weight.”

Physical Activity and Academics

Physical activity has some academic benefits as well.

Let’s refer back to the Kansas obesity intervention program.

Joseph Donnelly, co-author of the aforementioned study and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas, said that he added a measure of academic performance as an afterthought to show that at the very least, they were not disrupting the classroom.

The results surprised the researchers. They saw higher scores on a 30-minute standardized test of reading, writing and math in the schools that used active lessons than in the control schools.

It is not the only study that ties physical activity with improved academic performance.

The California Department of Education (CDE) assessed students’ health fitness scores on FITNESSGRAM and compared them to student scores on standardized math and language arts tests. They found that fit students scored twice as high on academic tests compared to those who were unfit.

The CDE, in the following year, controlled for upper and lower income brackets and found that upper income fit students scored higher than lower income students in general but that the premise still held true: that fitter students performed better academically.

Physical activity can also help to make children better at math and other rigorous academic subjects. Indeed, there is a very consistent finding and heavy body of research that shows that physically fit kids do better in school.

A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine found that “children who are more active show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.”

In a study involving 2,000 California school children, it was found that kids who were outside a healthy fitness zone (a 12-year-old who took longer than 12 minutes to run a mile is outside the healthy fitness zone) scored lower on state standardized tests than those who were more fit.

A similar study was conducted in Nebraska. Researchers assessed the fitness of school children during a shuttle run, in which children run back and forth laps in a set time. The kids who performed the best in that exercise scored higher on both math and reading sections of the state standardized exams.

Although those studies are compelling, they do not provide strong evidence that fitness is the cause of the higher test scores – fitness in children also correlates to higher socioeconomic status which is a predictor of academic success.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is: does adding physical activity in the school day boost a child’s capacity to learn?

The research on this question is still in its early stages but there is evidence to suggest that the answer is a definitive yes.

And physical activity doesn’t necessarily have to be rigorous exercise or sports, it can be as simple as plain old “play.”

Play and Healthy Child Development

People are now advocating play in accordance to the growing body of research that says that play has a positive effect on a child’s overall health and development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a Clinical Report in 2006 on the importance of play and healthy childhood development. They offer guidelines on how pediatricians can campaign for play to ensure that it is a part of the optimal development of young children.

The report also highlights that fast lifestyles, emphasis on academics and changes in family structure have greatly reduced child centered play and recess. The report is a reminder that play is an essential part of physical, social, academic and emotional development in young children.

The National Association of Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) also highlights the importance of play in the healthy development and success of children. The association primarily looks at school-age sports and physical education.

They point out that “opportunities to accumulate physical activity during the school day include time spent in physical education class, classroom-based movement, recess, walking or biking to school, and recreational sport and play that occurs before, during, and after school.”

It is still too early to draw broad conclusions from all these studies but there is increasing evidence that physical activity is more beneficial than previously thought.

But how can the research translate into children’s lives where video games, social media and sedentary activities are the appeal? That is a challenge that parents and schools face.

What Role Do Schools Play?

Physical education programs (PE) in schools offer kids the opportunity to not only be physically active but also the opportunity to learn skills and behaviors that are conducive to maintaining physical activity for the rest of their lives.

Kids spend a majority of their day in school. Physical education teaches them how to integrate physical activity into their day, today and later on in life. When else will they get the chance to learn that skill and adopt that mindset?

Elementary school kids who play sports are more likely to become active teenagers who in turn are more likely to be active adults. And according to the World Health Organization, being active is one of the most effective and important ways to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes and a lot of other life-threatening illnesses.

True, healthy people generally enjoy a higher quality of life. They also enjoy economic benefits in that they save costs and make productivity gains that are associated with workplace wellness.

The American Heart Association says that the best reason for adding physical activity to a child’s daily routine is that the efforts schools make now would help kids avoid a lifetime of chronic disease and disability.

Schools provide a strategic opportunity to promote physical activity in children. They literally have a captured audience. The ability to schedule time for physical activity, whether it be recess or PE or intramural sports, is unique to schools.

Almost 50 million kids are in school in the U.S. so there is no better place to begin engaging kids in daily physical activity.

It is important to make the distinction between physical education and recess, as the two are sometimes confused.

When some schools recently did away with recess, parents were informed that students don’t need recess as long as they are receiving physical education. Many parents didn’t buy that and fought back.

Image credit: CNN

The reason parents, students and play advocates fought back is because both physical education and recess are viewed as critical experiences in a well-rounded education.

Recess, like physical education, is one of the few unstructured elements or experiences in schooling. It gives children the opportunity to play, run, chase and use their outside voices.

Some children build up their social skills on the school playground. Some gather up enough courage to approach new friends, confront rivals or even irritate a rival in games like tag. All those experiences involve physical activity.

In addition to the mental break that recess provides, it also seems to be the most effective and efficient way to keep kids active. Research suggests that children are more active at recess than outside at home or even during PE.

A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study found that 42 percent of school students in the United States get most of their daily exercise at recess, even more than doing PE and after-school programs.

Furthermore, play, physical activity, PE, recess and sports are cherished childhood memories. The benefits of each have been well documented in scientific literature over the past decade or so.

It certainly makes it harder for informed parents, teachers and doctors to ignore the importance of each in contributing to healthy child development.

Some schools are even offering dance in classrooms in order to reap the benefits of physical activity for a child’s success.

Dance in Classrooms

Image credit: TED

Some people have long comprehended the importance of dance in life and in education.

Researchers like Charlotte Svendler Nielsen and Stephanie Burridge document the importance of dance in various cultures and societies in places like South Africa, Finland, Ghana, Taiwan, the United States and New Zealand. They published their findings in Dance Education around the World: Perspectives on Dance, Young People and Change.

Their studies show how a deeper understanding of dance challenges our deeply rooted notions or conceptions of intelligence and success and shows the transformative power of movement for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Dance can help reestablish joy and stability in troubled lives and alleviate tensions in schools that are unsettled by violence and bullying.

Several professional dance companies offer programs for schools. One such company is Dancing Classrooms, a New York City nonprofit which offers ballroom dance classes to elementary and middle school students in some of the most troubled districts in the U.S.

The organization teaches dance to those schools in the hopes of improving social relationships among genders and to enrich the culture of schools by fostering respect, compassion and collaboration. The program currently offers twenty sessions over a ten-week period to each school.

Lehigh Elementary School in Florida is a participating school in Dancing Classrooms’ program. Toni Walker, former principal of the school says, “when this young lady first came to Lehigh, the file on her was probably two inches thick. She felt she needed to prove herself and make sure everyone knew she was strong and would fight.”

The girl was hesitant to join the ballroom dancing program but since participation was mandatory, she had no choice but to do so. And she was glad she did as she discovered that she had a natural ability for ballroom dancing.

“In the next lesson, she had a little bit of a different attitude and we didn’t have to fight with her to dance. She just got in line.”

The student was transformed by the third and fourth lessons. According to Walker, “she carries herself differently; she speaks differently; she is kind; she is respectful; she has not had one [disciplinary notice], not one. Her mother can’t believe what she sees. It’s amazing. Amazing. The program is far greater than people understand.”

Sir Ken Robinson gave a TedTalk on why dance is just as important as math in school. Watch it below:


Wrapping Up

With various research reports highlighting the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, it is no wonder that exercise is being championed for school-age children.

Multiple scientific studies have shown that there is more to academic achievement than just book learning. The amount of exercise that students receive in school can create positive lifelong habits that compliment academic achievement.

Promoting physical health in childhood can benefit our youth with healthier bodies and brighter minds.