As public schools across America trim their budgets, one of the first casualties is gym class. Sadly, eliminating gym classes not only cuts into children’s physical fitness, it diminishes their intellectual performance as well. Research from the California Department of Education reveals that children who are more fit perform twice as well on academic tests as their unfit peers. And a panel of researchers who conducted a massive review of over 850 studies on the effects of physical activity on school-age children corroborates those findings. The researchers found that 30 to 45 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise 3 to 5 days a week enhanced memory, concentration, mood, classroom behavior, self-concept, and academic performance in the kids. The panel recommended at least one hour a day of moderate to vigorous exercise to optimize children’s cognitive development, as well as physical health.
Clearly there’s a mind-body connection here. And hard science backs that up. In the last decade, neuroscientists have discovered the biological mechanisms underlying the relationship between exercise and intellectual performance. Aerobic exercise increases the body’s production of nerve growth factors that stimulate the brain to create more connections between brain cells. And that enhanced connectivity among brain cells enables new learning to take place more rapidly, and durably. Add that to a recent study reported on Rodale.com, which showed that kids who are active in school also tend to get more exercise during non-school hours, and the value of physical education becomes a no-brainer.
WHAT IT MEANS: With the brain-boosting and health-enhancing benefits of exercise well established, how can schools help children get the exercise they need to keep their minds sharp and their bodies healthy? Parents need to get involved by observing gym classes or talking with their kids and their gym teachers to find out how the classes are currently conducted. After that, they can start a dialog with teachers, coaches, and administrators. Here are some changes to ask for; chances are your school won't be able totally revamp its physical education program all at once, but these are worthy goals that can help shape the conversation:
• More motion. Too many gym classes are filled with inactivity, with students just waiting around for volleyball equipment to be set up, waiting their turn to bat, or just standing around schmoozing. With gym classes already being shortened or cut, not making the best use of the time makes a bad situation worse.
• Higher heart rates. Gym classes should be structured to keep kids moving in activities that keep their heart rates elevated for at least 30 minutes—that’s how fitness levels improve. Jogging, swimming, skipping rope, 4-on-4 soccer, and 3-on-3 basketball are the types of activities that can provide continuous, vigorous movement.
• Phys ed that educates. Besides getting fitter, kids should gain knowledge and skills from gym class that will help them take charge of their fitness for the rest of their lives. They should learn things like how to warm up and cool down, the proper form for calisthenics, the differences between aerobic exercise and strength training, and how to create a well-rounded exercise program for themselves.
• Meaningful goals. At the beginning of each semester, each student should have a fitness evaluation and learn how to engage in exercise to increase his or her fitness level. At the end of the semester, grades should be based on progress achieved toward fitness goals that are achievable but challenging.
• An active home life. All learning starts at home, so if you want your kids to be fit and healthy, you need to set a good example by turning off the TV and spending time being active with your children. Go for family walks or bike rides, spend an afternoon at a park or playground, toss a ball or frisbee around in the backyard. A recent study reported on Rodale.com shows that kids tend to be more active when spending time with peers; you can encourage this by having your kids invite friends over or planning active outings for the group.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, and the author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The Breakthrough Drug-Free Program for Lasting Relief from Depression (Rodale Press, 2010).