8 Ways Exercise Can Help Your Child Do Better in School

Physical activity can improve cognitive function and academic performance.

Posted Oct 02, 2014

As the father of a six-year-old, I am passionate about identifying daily habits that can help keep my daughter healthy, happy, and prepare her to achieve her full potential. Like every parent, I want my daughter to do well in school so that she can have all the opportunities that education will provide throughout her lifespan. 

What can you do as a parent to ensure that every child has the opportunity to achieve his or her best academically? Over the past three years of blogging for Psychology Today, I have touched on a broad range of daily habits that seem to improve cognitive function and improve the odds of academic achievement. 

As the author of The Athlete's Way, my focus is primarily on the neuroscience behind the mental and physical benefits of exercise at every stage of our lives. In recent months, scientific articles finding a link between physical activity and brain health have been released at breakneck speed.

In this review I define “doing better in school” based on the CDC definition of academic performance which is broadly to describe different factors that may influence student success in school. The CDC divides these factors into three primary areas:

  • Cognitive Skills and Attitudes  (e.g., attention/concentration, memory, verbal ability).
  • Academic Behaviors (e.g., conduct, attendance, time on task, homework completion).
  • Academic Achievement (e.g.,standardized test scores, grades)

Below is a brief summary of eight studies that have been released in recent months that explore the link between physical acitivity, cognitive function, and academic performance from a variety of angles.

Eight Ways Exercise Can Help Your Child Do Better in School

1. Combination of Motor Skills and Aerobic Fitness Improves Academics

In June of 2014, researchers from the University of Madrid reported that motor skills gained through physical activity may be of greater importance than the cardiorespiratory benefits of aerobic fitness. 

The Spanish study,”Independent and Combined Influence of the Components of Physical Fitness on Academic Performance in Youth,” was published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

2. Exercise Creates More Efficient White Matter and Brain Connectivity

An August 2014 study from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that children who are more aerobically fit have more fibrous and compact white-matter tracts in the brain than their peers who are less fit. 

The study, "Aerobic fitness is Associated with Greater White Matter Integrity in Children," was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

3. Exercise Before School Improves Focus and Reduces ADHD Symptoms

In a September 2014 study, researchers from Michigan State University and University of Vermont found that offering daily before-school, aerobic activities to younger at-risk children could help in reducing the symptoms of ADHD in the classroom and at home.

The study, "A Randomized Trial Examining the Effects of Aerobic Physical Activity on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms in Young Children," was published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

4. Physical Activity Should Remain Playful For Best Results

In a September 2014 study, researchers at the University of Montreal identified four dimensions of play particularly important for children as part of any physical activity. Play makes exercise seem like fun which makes it more enjoyable. 

The study from University of Montreal, "Problematizing “Play-for-Health” Discourses Through Children’s Photo-Elicited Narratives," was published in the journal Qualitative Health Research.

5. Boys Can Especially Benefit from Regular Physical Activity

A September 2014 study from University of Finland found that physically active school transportation related to academic skills and may be beneficial for the development of reading skills in boys. 

The study, "Associations of Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior with Academic Skills – A Follow-Up Study among Primary School Children," was published in PLOS ONE

6. Taking "Brain Breaks" During Class Improves Classroom Performance

In September 2014, the abstract of a study,"Brain Breaks: Physical Activity in the Classroom for Elementary School Children," was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Oregon law will mandate that by 2017 elementary schools have 30 minutes a day of physical education classes, in addition to recess periods. A survey conducted by the Healthy Youth Program found that 92 percent of Oregon public elementary schools currently do not meet this standard. The CDC confirms that this is a nationwide deficit. 

7. After-School Exercise Groups Can Improve Cognitive Function

In September 2014, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released findings that children who participate in after-school exercise groups have improved cognitive function.

The study, "Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function," is available from the University of Illinois News Bureau.

8. Resistance Training and Lifting Weights Can Improve Memory

In October 2014, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that an intense bout of resistance training for as little as 20 minutes can enhance episodic memory, also known as long-term memory in healthy young adults.

The study, "A Single Bout of Resistance Exercise can Enhance Episodic Memory Performance, was published in the journal Acta Psychologica.

Conclusion: Exercise Is Key for the Well-Being of Our Children and Future Generations

These findings come at an important time. In a June 2014 report, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released an alaming study about the repercussions of increasing sedentarism among American chilldren: before-school, in-school, and after-school.

Please take a few minutes to read the CDC report here

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

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