NEW YORK • Students who get extra physical activity may pay more attention in school and do better in subjects like reading and maths, a research review suggests.
The study team analysed data from 26 previously published studies with a total of more than 10,000 children between four and 13 years old. All of the prior studies measured the impact of a variety of physical activity programmes on academic performance.
The authors also looked at whether the effect of exercise differed across academic subjects. Although the benefit of physical activity was strongest for mathematics, it was only slightly less for other subjects like language and reading, meaning physical activity benefits learning in all academic subjects.
"Exercise influences the brain by increasing cerebral blood flow, which increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients and promotes blood capillaries formation, increases the neuronal connectivity through the promotion of the synaptogenesis and the availability of neurotransmitters," said study co-author Ivan Cavero Redondo of the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha in Cuenca, Spain.
"Beyond the neurobiological explanations, exercise includes an important social component that fosters benefits on mental health."
The findings offer fresh evidence that physical activity is one way to help boost children's grades.
When kids take time out of the school day for physical activity, whether in dedicated gym classes or by incorporating movement into classroom lessons, students may have an easier time focusing on their classwork and thus doing better in school, Redondo added.
Overall, physical activity appeared to have the biggest impact on keeping kids on task and focused on their work, the study found. Students who participated in various experimental exercise programmes also did better at maths, reading and language classes than their peers who did not participate in these programmes.
Exercise had a bigger impact on school performance when it was incorporated into the school day than when it was added as an extracurricular activity, researchers report in the journal Pediatrics.
The experimental exercise programmes tested in the smaller studies increased physical activity time from 10 minutes to 60 minutes per day. Sometimes these programmes extended recess, while in other instances the added activity was achieved with after-school sports or by creating active breaks between lessons on a school day.
One limitation of the study was that researchers lacked enough data from a large enough group of participants to determine which types of physical activity interventions might have the biggest impact on academics and school achievement, the authors noted.
Even so, the analysis offers convincing evidence that physical activity can enhance children's reading and maths skills, said Sara Benjamin Neelon, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore who was not involved in the study.
"Schools need to get on board and prioritise active time for children both during and after the school day," Neelon said in an e-mail.
"Kids spend a large portion of their waking hours at school and should spend at least part of that time being physically active."
Physical activity may help kids do better in school by improving behaviour, memory and cognitive function, said Jordan Carlson, a researcher at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City who was not involved in the study.
"A substantial amount of evidence shows that physical activity improves kids' attention and behaviour in the classroom and reduces classroom disruptions," Carlson said in an e-mail.
"Kids have an internal drive to be physically active, and inhibiting their need to be physically active during school can lead to behavioural problems."
Because kids often get too little exercise time during the school day, parents need to provide these opportunities outside school, Carlson added.
"However, the beneficial effect of physical activity on academic achievement appears to be specific to school-based physical activity," he said. "Parents should talk with their children, teachers, and administrators about opportunities for physical activity at school."