Science Says This is Key to Your Kid's Academic Success

by ParentCo. May 26, 2017

Girls running in tracks

These days we’re obsessed with success. Particularly big book smarts, AP classes, higher education, and a preoccupation with straight A’s, but piling on the homework and study time doesn’t always yield results. Pushing our kids for those perfect report cards often backfires. Could there be a much simpler, easier path to academic success? There is one thing that can help. It's not hard to do, and it comes naturally to kids – and it doesn’t require sitting down with them to do common core homework even you can’t figure out. Yay!  Research shows that exercise has a positive effect on school performance – especially for boys. A collaborative effort between the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Cambridge indicates that the more physically active boys are, the better they perform on academic tests including reading and arithmetic. Side note: We should probably be taking a big hint from Finland. Despite a more laid back approach to education, the Finnish school system ranks among the best in the world and regularly turns out high-performing students. The publicly funded education program sets children off on the right track with a focus more on play and less on sit-down-and-study tactics, including 50-minute recesses. Interesting, right? In this study, researchers analyzed children (89 boys and 69 girls) aged six to eight years in grades one to three. Heart rate monitors and movement sensors were used to track active and sedentary activity times. They found that the more physically active boys were, the more likely they were to score higher on academic tests measuring reading comprehension and arithmetic skills, while more sedentary time correlated with lower scores. "High levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and low levels of sedentary time in Grade one were related to better reading skills in grades one to three among boys. We also observed that boys who had a combination of low levels of physical activity and high levels of sedentary time had the poorest reading skills through grades one to three," says Eero Haapala, PhD. Interestingly, these results didn’t seem to apply as much to the girls. This could be related to the fact that attention disorders that affect learning, such as ADHD, are more prevalent in boys. Research is proving again and again that exercise is basically nature’s Ritalin. For example, a nine month study on kids aged seven to nine showed that those who participated in a regular after-school exercise program had better executive function in the brain. This results in improved focus, working memory, and cognitive flexibility - all things that ADHD sufferers struggle with. Regardless of gender, however, exercise is obviously beneficial for everyone. Even a short burst of exercise can improve test scores. Maintaining a regular exercise routine long-term is important, but there are immediate benefits as well. Even 20 minutes of exercise prior to a test can boost scores. It’s no wonder, since it burns off excess nervous energy, boosts mood, and helps clear brain fog, thus helping the child think clearly and recall information more easily. Of course, the benefits don’t stop at just school pursuits. Exercise impacts every part of a person’s health – physically, mentally, and emotionally. You’re probably aware of the more obvious physical perks like increased cardiorespiratory fitness, endurance, and strength, as well as a lower percentage of body fat, and better balance and athletic performance. There are also numerous emotional and mental benefits that can make all the difference in your child’s quality of life. For one, it’s a natural mood booster. Exercise causes chemical reactions in the body that trigger feelings of well-being. Research has even shown it to be an effective treatment against depression and anxiety disorders. It’s no surprise that physical activity is a great stress buster. In light of increasing usage of medications to treat mood disorders and anxiety in children (and adults), it begs the question, why? Especially when we have instant availability to one of the greatest treatments available, and it doesn’t require a doctor visit. All we have to do is put on shoes and get our kids outdoors. It’s one of the best things you can do for them (and for yourself)! One thing is for sure - our bodies were meant to move! Given all this remarkable information, I am dumbfounded as to why a lot of schools in the U.S. are reducing or even eliminating recess. At my first-grader’s school, in fact, kids actually lose recess time if they have been acting up in class. Um, won’t that just compound the problem? (They only get two 15-minute sessions a day anyway.) Cutting physical activity in favor of sitting and “focusing” for longer periods is counterproductive to the developing brain and body. Even as adults, sitting is the new smoking considering how detrimental it is to overall health. So what’s a frustrated parent to do? You just want to help your kids succeed in life, including doing well in school and staying healthy. Even if your local school system isn’t quite on board with the importance of physical activity, you can do plenty at home to set your kids up for success. Here are a few to start:

Lock them outside

Okay, maybe not lock them out, but you know what I mean. Outdoor time is so simple yet so amazingly beneficial. There are so many reasons to have them play outdoors. This naturally fosters fitness, learning, and creativity, all at the same time. Help them help themselves by getting outside for a dose of nature and sunshine.

Let them go out for sports

When you sign your kid up for soccer, baseball, track, etc., you’re setting them up for a multipoint system of success. This is the fun alternative to an “exercise routine” with regimented workouts that won’t stick (heck, we struggle with that as adults). It’s better to get them involved in something enjoyable and socially engaging. This way they get their hearts pumping and at the same time build relationships, learn new skills and how to work on a team, and grow a healthy competitive side, too.

Just play!

Activity sessions don’t have to be in the form of organized sports. Whether outdoors or indoors, letting it be fun is key. Just getting outside can lead to active exploring or trigger games of tag, hopscotch, leapfrog, or whatever else they come up with. If you are stuck indoors, there are still active things to do. Turn on music they can dance to. Find some fun kids workouts on YouTube. Save all the bubble wrap from your delivered packages (or buy a big roll) and let them jump on it. A hopper ball with a handle is a worthy investment. Or simply turn off the screens and see what happens – they’ll usually come up with something on their own.

Get yourself in shape

Do you know what’s more effective than just telling your kids to go be active? Setting the example yourself. As in most things, kids follow examples better than verbal direction. Your influence has more of an impact than you think. You are ultimately responsible for setting them up with a healthy lifestyle. So let them see you make fitness a priority. Get on an exercise plan yourself and let them see you in action. Or involve them by going for walks, bike rides, or hikes together. Bonus: This doubles as family time. You’ll create positive memories they’ll remember for a long time to come. No matter how you go about it, it’s clear that getting active is nothing but beneficial to the body and brain. So get moving!



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