There are so many reasons that each of us should make exercise a routine part of our schedule. Regular physical activity naturally promotes better cardiovascular health, and it improves our strength and balance. It has also been associated with greater self-confidence and a better mood. But researchers are proving that there are also benefits of exercise on academics. Physical exercise and cognitive function are not mutually exclusive but instead intimately connected. The more active we are, the better we perform when it comes to learning and absorbing information. And this is quite important to recognize when it comes to children and their school environments.
From a holistic health perspective, it makes perfect sense that physical exercise and cognitive function are connected. After all, exercise increased our heart rates, our circulation and the amount of oxygen that tissues receive. All of this could certainly help the way all organs function, including our brains. But it seems the benefits of exercise on academics extends beyond this. While the precise mechanism by which this connection works has yet to be defined, it’s hard to deny its existence. As a result, parents and schools might need to reconsider how to approach optimal learning environments for today’s children.
Research on Physical Exercise and Cognitive Function
Over the last several years, an increasing number of research studies have looked at physical exercise and cognitive function. Several have suggested that noted benefits of exercise on academics could exist. But a recent study out of Geneva, Switzerland, supports this assessment even further. In the study, the researchers compared cardiovascular fitness to academic performance among 193 students. The results were quite impressive with those with higher fitness scores achieving much better school performance overall. And this appeared to result from improvements in several areas of cognitive functioning.
The students in the study were between the ages of eight to 12 years, and they attended eight different schools in Geneva. Cardiovascular fitness was assessed using a shuttle run test, which in essence consists of several 20-yard sprints. The students were then asked to complete nine different cognitive tasks, and their school grades were also evaluated. The results of the study showed that students with higher levels of fitness had higher grades and better task performance. Specifically, they demonstrated better focus, improved mental flexibility, and enhanced working memory. Based on these findings, the researchers believed the benefits of exercise on academics was well supported.
Digging a Little Deeper in the Data
While the overall results clearly show the benefits of exercise on academics, the researchers wanted to know why. In this regard, they found that physical exercise and cognitive function appear to be linked through enhanced executive thinking. Executive functions including brain areas that are involved on critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. They put together concepts and assess similarities and differences. Located in the more frontal parts of our brains, these cognitive areas represent the most advanced portions of the human mind. And higher levels of physical fitness boosted the performance of these brain areas.
In essence, better executive functioning of the children’s brains resulted in several advantages. The ability to multitask, or to rapidly shift attention from one thing to another, improved. They also could hold more information in their working memory and shut out distractions to a better degree. Ultimately, this led to better performance in subjects like math and language learning where such skills are needed. Thus, the benefits of exercise on academics appears to result from better frontal brain function. And while researchers still don’t know the mechanism behind this, it’s evident physical exercise and cognitive function gains do exist.
Implications of the Research
Understanding the benefits of exercise on academics, there a number of implications that should be considered. Many school systems currently have been considering replacing physical education classes with academic ones. In an effort to meet state and national academic standards, the assumption is that more coursework is better. But in light of this most recent research, eliminating physical activity classes could undermine the overall goal. Because physical exercise and cognitive function is linked, schools should be encouraging more exercise instead of less. Ultimately, this could enhance academic performance and learning to a much higher degree.
In addition to these considerations, the research has additional implications for schools and parents. For example, students often sit for extended periods of time in school in classrooms. Such positioning has been linked to reduced cardiovascular fitness overall. And now, it may also be linked to lower academic performance and learning capacities. The same applies to kids at home who spend hours in front of their technology devices. (The parents vs. technology debate is as old as time–read more in this Project Bold Life story.) This type of sedentary activity has been linked to obesity. And it may also be associated with a reduced academic potential. Given the connection between physical exercise and cognitive function, kids should regularly participate in physical activities throughout the day. In order to realize the benefits of exercise on academics, both schools and parents may need to reassess children’s routines.
Taking a Look at the Larger Picture
Currently in the U.S., roughly 60 percent of all children lack adequate cardiovascular fitness levels. This parallels with increased rates of childhood obesity, which places children at risk for a variety of secondary diseases as adults. These include conditions like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke. Insufficient exercise also increases the risk for depression and low self-esteem. And given the recent research described, it may also affect their brain health and their ability to excel in school. This highlights just how important physical exercise is on children’s health and wellness.
Clearly, the most current research evidence supports a link between physical exercise and cognitive function. There looks to be clear benefits of exercise on academics for children. At the same time, physical activity can help children thrive in many other ways. With this in mind, it’s important that different approaches to children’s wellbeing be considered. A more holistic perspective is needed if we wish to give our kids the best chance to succeed. And this not only means recognizing the connection between physical exercise and cognitive function. But also appreciating the broader advantages physical activity has on wellness overall.
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