Monday, December 12, 2016

Physical Activity and Your Child's Academic Performance-Get Fit to Get Smart!

After several years working exclusively as an outpatient physical therapist, I returned to school-based therapy when I returned from Guyana. So far I am loving it. It has been a great experience and some days I cannot believe I get paid to play all day. However, there is one thing that I had forgotten about: how much of the day students sit. 

Students sit and sit and sit. And then teachers are surprised that they don't act well. As a physical therapist, I want to yell: Get up and move! But I work only with the students in special ed, so it's not my place, right? Not so fast. Evidence backs me up. 

We all know a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of early morbidity and mortality and don’t you think that those behaviors start as a child? Plus, it is well-established that physical activity and sports have a positive effect on children's physical health. Regular participation in physical activity in childhood is associated with a decreased cardiovascular risk in youth and adulthood. 

In an age where 1/3rd of our children are obese and 1/12th have or will have diabetes, this should be justification enough. But there’s more! Numerous studies have looked at the effects of physical activity  and its beneficial effects on many mental health outcomes, including quality of life and improved mood states. Throw in better coping strategies, self-esteem and lower rates of anxiety and depression and physical activity at school seems a no-brainer!

Beyond mental and physical health outcomes, evidence has begun to emerge supporting a link between physical activity, cognitive function, and academic achievement. Cardiorespiratory fitness, speed-agility, motor coordination, and perceptual-motor skill all appear to be associated with improvements in cognitive and academic performance. A meta-analysis published in 2013, suggested that while physical activity in general improved cognitive outcomes, the largest effect size was with cardiovascular exercise. This is consistent with Lees and Hopkins’ study that revealed aerobic physical activity to be positively associated with cognition, academic achievement, behavior, and psychosocial functioning outcomes (Lees). Being cardiovascularly healthy improves their brain function!  

A review article in the Journal of American Medicine Pediatrics summarized the hypothesized rationale for improved academic performance with higher levels of physical activity. They cited that there are three hypothesized mechanisms which include (1) increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain; (2) improvement in mood and reduction of stress due to increased levels of norepinephrine and endorphins and/or (3) increased growth factors that help to create new nerve cells and support synaptic plasticity. By increasing a child’s physical activity levels, we are in turn allowing them an improvement in their learning potential while decreasing their stress.

Although schools are able to offer unique opportunities for structured physical activity for children, there is a tendency to cut back physical education and reduce the amount of physical activity afforded students during the school day. The increasing pressures to improve academic scores often lead to additional instructional time for subjects such as mathematics and language at the cost of time for being physically active. Integrating physical activity into the classroom may increase learning and offset the decreasing physical education classes and recess. One recent systematic review found that physically active academic lessons of moderate intensity improved overall performance on a standardized test of academic achievement by 6% compared to a decrease of 1% for controls.

I am in the process of proposing a kinesthetic learning lab for the elementary school that I work at. This would allow students that opportunity to be active while learning through a variety of aerobic exercise machines and activities. The hope would be that this would help supplement the limited physical education and short recess offerings that they get throughout the week. It’s in its infancy but I am very excited about the possibility of helping improve both wellness and academic performance.

Here’s the thing though, schools cannot do it all. Parents need to be on board to promote and model healthy behaviors and physical activity at home. Which can be tricky.  You work all day and just want to relax when you get home. But this really is time when you can model healthful behaviors for your children. Go for a walk, play outside or(if you live up north) make a snowman. The key is to instill upon them a love of the outdoors and being active so they want to do it.

Together we can create a healthier and smarter next generation.

Until next time,


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