Exercise: It's good for kids' brains

A new study from the CDC suggests that physical education can boost test scores.

By Catherine Price
Published March 5, 2008 7:50PM (EST)

This just in from USA Today: Gym class may boost girls' academic achievements. The article cites a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that in a study of more than 5,000 students between kindergarten and fifth grade, girls who received the highest levels of phys ed -- 70 to 300 minutes a week -- did better on a series of standardized tests than peers who spent less than 35 minutes a week in gym class. (No such correlation was found for boys, which report author Susan Carlson suggests could be because boys may need more gym class than girls because they're "commonly more active.")

Now, before getting wrapped up in the correct number of minutes both genders must spend in gym class before their test scores improve, I'd like to take a step back and say that as a former teacher at an all-boys middle school, it seems a little strange to me that we need to have the CDC come out with a study to prove what many teachers would say is obvious: Kids, like the young of many animals, have a lot of energy, and they need a way to release it. Teaching a group of sixth-grade boys is not unlike training puppies -- they might not pee on their desks (if they do, it's a really bad day), but their natural inclination is not to sit at a desk for seven hours a day studying things like mathematical formulas. Reducing gym class in favor of more academics seems like a recipe, from a behavioral perspective at least, for creating a class of 4-month-old beagles -- a group that, from my experience, is not particularly good at mastering the quadratic equation.

As I mentioned, this particular study didn't show an improvement for the boys' test scores, but common sense would suggest that exercise could benefit them as well -- any doubters should check out "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain" for some some pretty compelling evidence of the positive effect exercise can have on learning. What's more, in a country where our kids are so unhealthy that they're developing adult-onset diabetes before they can even vote, promoting exercise, purely from the perspective of personal health, is likely one of the most important lessons we can teach. And going back to behavior again, not only does exercise give kids a chance to release excess energy, but sports and activities that focus on teamwork and cooperation can lead to better classroom dynamics as well.

Unfortunately, America seems to be moving away from including daily exercise in students' curriculums -- according to the study's author, only 12.6 percent of kids in the grades reported on meet the Healthy People 2010 objective of daily participation in phys ed. On the contrary, teachers "most commonly reported that students receive physical education only one or two times a week." That is partially due to an increased pressure to raise standardized test scores, which many schools have responded to by dropping phys ed in favor of more academics.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that we should lower our expectations for students (from what I can tell from the wildly varying state-by-state standards, they're plenty low already). And schools' primary objectives still should be making sure kids have skills necessary to support themselves after they graduate. But it seems to me, given all the benefits exercise can have on academics, that the logic of cutting out physical education programs to improve students' performance in math class is almost as muddled as it would be if we cut out lunch to give students more time for gym: One activity nourishes and supports the other, and if you cut out the former, you have a negative effect on the latter. Which is to say, I hope that the CDC's study helps turn the tide back toward including daily exercise in schools. The benefits would reach far beyond the playing field.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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