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Can regular exercise lead to better test scores?

The answer is probably yes. A recent study found found kids who took part in a regular physical activity program showed important enhancement of cognitive performance and brain function.

We all know that exercise generally benefits children, and another study to confirm this was recently published in Pediatrics. While this finding may yield a yawn (or even two) as you're reading right now, this latest research is important and goes well beyond quantifying what most of us think to be true.

Charles Hillman, PhD, from the University of Illinois and colleagues found kids who took part in a regular physical activity program showed important enhancement of cognitive performance and brain function. His group looked at the impact of a little over an hour of vigorous exercise followed by another 45 minutes of a less vigorous skills game, for a total of two hours, every day after school, during 150 days of a school year.  On measures of concentration, attention,  flexible thinking, the ability to control impulses, and actual brain activity as measured by scalp electrodes, the exercise group of these 8 and 9-year-old children did much better overall.

"The message is, get kids to be physically active" for the sake of their brains, as well as their health, said Hillman in a New York Times interview. After-school programs like the one he and his colleagues developed require little additional equipment or expense for most schools, he said, although a qualified physical education instructor should be involved.

The Atlantic magazine referenced the results and suggested that this might be a treatment for impulsive and overly active children. What makes these results so extraordinary is that they are not unusual. Three years ago, Catherine Davis, PhD, at University of Georgia did another study of slightly older children who were overweight and did low level (20 minutes per day) and higher level (40 minutes per day) exercise versus a control group.  They only did about 15 weeks, or half a school year, and found the same results.  In a small group of subjects that were examined with a functional MRI of the brain, Davis found changes in brain activity that can be seen on the visual image of brain function, along with better scores in math, organization, control of impulses.

In science, replication is key, and here we have two groups, working independent of each other getting the same findings, the same benefit from vigorous exercise, and showing the same test results and brain  activity changes.  Other studies of school exercise in Delaware have shown that 30 minutes of physical activity increases test scores and decreases absences.

If there was a medicine that showed this benefit, there would be a full page advertisement on this website.  If there was a curriculum that showed this benefit, it would easily sold to your local school district.  But it is not a product to be sold, it is a lifestyle to be taught in school and at home.  A lifestyle that includes an hour of vigorous activity, either through games or other play enhances academic, cognitive, and executive skills of planning and self-control. Schools and families that limit or eliminate these opportunities to play impede on their child's progress.

The science is clear. To advance academically and in terms of self-control, children's bodies, including their brains, need these opportunities to move.  An extra hour of instruction may help, but if it comes at the cost of reducing active play, it will probably hurt.

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