Researchers are finding more and more evidence to support the theory that exercise improves brain function and cognition, meaning that exercise makes children smarter.

According to this JAMA Network review, ‘In addition to the positive physical and mental health impact of physical activity, there is a strong belief that regular participation in physical activity is linked to enhancement of brain function and cognition, thereby positively influencing academic performance.’

What does this mean for our children?

If you want them to succeed at school, your children need to be getting the right recipe of exercise skills built into their daily activities. EVERY DAY.

Whenever I talk about this, teachers complain that there’s just not enough time, that the heavy load of academic work they have to get through makes it just about impossible to schedule a Phys. Ed. lesson into every day. They have a hard enough time trying to get children to concentrate on the work they have to get through, without complicating things with extra time out of the classroom.

My answer (and my belief) is this: Children who get enough exercise, particularly if the exercise includes some fundamental movement skills that are proven to ‘switch on’ the brain, will not need as much classroom time in order to learn the curriculum..  

As confirmed by this comment from the 24 signatories to the ‘Statement on Physical Activity in Schools’, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine: ‘Time taken away from lessons for physical activity, is time well spent, and does not come at the cost of getting good grades’.

It’s time for a major shift in our thinking around the importance and relevance of exercise for children in schools.

The first shift is that we need to start viewing exercise as a positive, something that can add to learning, not a negative that takes away from it.

The second shift is that we need to stop seeing exercise as an onerous chore, needing a scheduled daily period with all kinds of specialized equipment and clothing. What I’m talking about here is 20 minutes before school, or 10 minutes twice a day during class time, in the classroom, wearing your ordinary school clothes, with little to no equipment.

If we could empower teachers with the knowledge and skills to deliver these short bursts of exercise skills every day, imagine the difference we could make to our children’s cognitive ability, learning readiness, memory skills, problem solving abilities, and even their behaviour and mood in the classroom.

Here’s more interesting research I’ve found:

‘When kids have been challenged with cognitive tasks that require lots of concentration and attentional control, individuals with higher aerobic fitness have performed with more accuracy, and sometimes faster reaction times, too (Moore et al 2013; Wu et al 2011; Voss et al 2011; Hillman et al 2005; Hillman et al 2009b; Raine et al 2016).’

‘A single session of moderately energetic physical activity has immediate positive effects on brain function, intellect, and academic performance (British Journal of Sports Medicine, June 2016)’

‘Other brain research suggests that fit kids are better at filtering out task-irrelevant information (Kamijo et al 2015).’

‘Exercise does not have to be time-consuming; a range of children, some with learning difficulties, get real benefits from short periods of fairly intensive physical activity (Moreau et al 2017)’

‘Studies indicate that fit children tend to have greater brain volume in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with memory (Chaddock-Heyman et al 2014), and these kids show signs of enhanced long-term retention.’

The evidence is mounting… it’s time to get YOUR school moving, literally and figuratively!

If you’d like to find out more, this article, ‘Proven: Kids Get Smarter Just from Exercising’ is well worth a read.

Simon McQueen

Simon McQueen is the founder and creator of Fit Kids, a fundamental movement program of the highest quality. He currently lives in Cape Town, South Africa, where he spends his days building Fit Kids and running the best nipper club in the country on the beach where he grew up - Fish Hoek Surf Lifesaving Club.

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