The Athlete's Way

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Better Motor Skills Linked to Higher Academic Scores

Children with poor motor skills score lower on reading and arithmetic tests.

A new study from Finland has found that children with poor motor skills also have poorer reading and arithmetic skills. The study found that children who performed poorly in agility, speed and manual dexterity tests also had lower reading and arithmetic test scores in first through third grades. Across the board, children with better performance in motor tests scored higher in reading and arithmetic tests. The study was published October 28, 2013 in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

The study investigated the relationships of cardiovascular fitness and motor performance in the first grade to reading and arithmetic skills in grades 1–3 among 174 Finnish children as part of The Physical Activity and Nutrition (PANIC) Study at the University of Eastern Finland and The First Steps Study at the University of Jyväskylä. These associations were stronger in boys than girls. Those children in the lowest third of motor performance had dramatically lower reading and arithmetic test scores than children in the other two thirds.

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Interestingly, a recent study from Harvard University ranked Finland as the number one country in the world for childhood education. As American children become less active and spend more hours each day in front of a screen, it appears that their cerebral and cerebellar function is declining. There is growing evidence of the link between improved motor skills, dexterity, and cognition.

I have written extensively in The Athlete's Way about the link between stimulating neural growth in all hemispheres of the brain—which includes the left and right hemispheres of both the cerebrum and the cerebellum. One backlash of the “No Child Left Behind” approach to over-emphasizing the importance of test scores are the consequences of literally causing a child’s cerebellum and its related motor skills to atrophy, which reduces cognitive abilites and lowers academic performance.

5 Finnish Guidelines for Childhood Well-Being and Education

The objective of the Finnish PANIC Study is to provide new scientific evidence on physical activity, sedentary behavior, diet, eating behavior, cardiorespiratory and neuromuscular fitness, excess body fat, and metabolism. In addition the study looks at cardiovascular function, bone mineral density, cognition, reading and arithmetic skills, sleep, pain and other aspects of life quality. These include oral health and healthcare expenses.

The main focus of the study is on the effects of increased physical activity, improved diet and genetic factors on health and well-being among children and adolescents. The Finnish researchers recommend the following 5 guidelines:

1) Increase total physical activity to at least two hours per day by increasing different types of physical activity, such as unstructured physical activity, physical activity during recess, organized sports, structured exercise time, and commuting to and from school on foot, bicycle, scooter... 

2) Increase the versatility of physical activity to develop physical, emotional, cognitive and social skills and brain functions.

3) Provide a variety of positive physical activity experiences to help each child find a suitable type of physical activity and to be able to enjoy exercise in the long-term.

4) Decrease sedentary behaviors, such as watching television and playing on computer, to an absolute maximum of two hours per day.

5) Increase energy expenditure to maintain energy balance and to prevent becoming overweight.

Conclusion: Cerebellar Dexterity Linked to Cerebral Smarts

What are the Finns doing that we could emulate in the United States to improve our education and global competitiveness? The findings of this study emphasize the importance of motor performance and movement skills as key to a child’s academic success during the first years of school, and most likely throughout a lifespan.

The academic development of children with poor motor performance should be closely monitored. Teachers and parents should strive to include daily activities and take steps to support not only the development of reading, arithmetic etc. but make sure to include time each day focused on movement skills and physical activity.

If you'd like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blogs: "Einstein's Genius Linked to Well-Connected Brain Hemispheres", "Gesturing Engages all Four Brain Hemispheres","How Is the Cerebellum Linked to Autism Spectrum Disorders","The Brain Benefits of Healthy Diet and Fitness in Early Life" and "Human Babies Rely on Primitive Reflexes to Learn Language."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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