According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the percentage of elementary schools in the U.S. that have daily physical education is 3.6 percent. This represents a direct reflection of America’s attitude toward an educational institution’s role in physical development—school is for the brain; not for the body.
Though health problems brought on by inactivity have skyrocketed in youth, pressure to improve standardized test scores has forced teachers and administrators to maximize the amount of time they have for instruction, minimizing the time children have for physical education and free play. Unfortunately, “instruction” is often another word for “sitting at a desk, being expected to focus and retain information.”
While top performing education systems in countries like Finland dedicate as much as 75 minutes per day to physical activity, many American schools attempt (often unsuccessfully) to mandate only about 100 minutes per WEEK to the same pursuit.
Is this decreased activity for the sake of increased learning delivering the desired result? In 2014, the U.S. ranked 26th out of 34 countries in math, 17th in reading and 21st in science. This is a rather poor showing for a country with such tremendous economic resources. During the same time period, Finland ranked #1 in science and #2 in both math and reading.
The time has come for America to acknowledge that the development of the brain and the body is intertwined throughout life, particularly at a young age. By allowing children to move more, we’re playing a role in improving their physical fitness AND their cognitive performance.
How can moving the body supercharge the young brain?
Below are 3 major mechanisms where physical activity plays an important role in brain growth and development.
- A 2010 essay by Columbia researcher, Charles Basch, outlines how exercise helps maintain optimal blood flow throughout the body. This not only provides the brain with ample oxygen for optimized function, but it also promotes brain cell growth.
- Researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered that regular aerobic exercise can boost the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with verbal memory and learning.
- In Dr. John Ratey’s recent book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, current research on the relationship between physical activity and brain development is brought to light. It appears that exercise helps release a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF. BDNF helps build and maintain brain cell circuitry, improving the speed of brain signals as well as the health of neurons.
Increased blood flow, cell growth, brain size and signal speed resulting from increased physical activity can ignite the brain for better concentration, behavior, information processing and memory—all of which are critical in improving academic performance. Apparently, getting sweaty is an important part of getting smarter!
And what about the other positive ways physical activity impacts our children’s health? The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends 60 minutes per day of physical activity and 150 minutes per week of instructional physical education for elementary school children in order to optimize the positive impact of physical activity.
While different climates, facilities and schedules may not be conducive to extended periods of free play and activity, consider the following five options to get kids moving throughout the day:
- Create opportunities for children to stand up and do “brain break” activities that could involve stretching, balancing or doing other light physical activity every 45-60 minutes.
- Consider creating workstations where children can stand or sit on a balance ball.
- During recess, provide guidance for active games and activities, facilitating opportunities for all children to participate.
- Educate parents about the importance of creating an active home environment.
- Prior to a lesson, test or other activity requiring maximal memory and cognition create a list of five exercises to perform in succession, raising heart rate and blood flow.
It’s important that we strive to educate our communities about the importance of physical activity, not only for physical health, but also for improved behavior, intelligence and academic performance. Active kids will one day become healthy, intelligent and active adults!
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (n.d.). School Health Policies And Practices Study – 2014 Overview.
Musolf, D. (2014). Does outdoor play make kids smarter? San Jose Mercury News.