Did You Know… Fit Kids Learn Better and Have Improved Memories

Wednesday, January 27, 2016, 23:27 PM
A growing number of studies support the idea that physical exercise may be responsible for improved academic performance, especially in children.

A study in 2013 conducted on 49 children between the ages of 9 and 10 years of age showed that kids with ‘high fitness’ regimes outperformed their peers with’ low fitness’ regimes in recall and memory testing (PLOS One, September 11, 2013; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072666).

Another study conducted in 2007 on 259 children in grades 3, 4 and 5 showed that field tests of physical fitness were positively related to academic achievement (Journal of Sports Exercise Psychology, 2007 Apr;29(2):239-52).  Specifically, aerobic capacity was positively associated with improvement in total academic achievement, mathematics achievement, and reading achievement.  This study suggests that physical activity and fitness may be related to academic performance in children ages 8-11. 

Yet a further study conducted in 2013 on 838 kids in middle school showed that boys in the ‘Healthy Fitness Zone’ for aerobic fitness or muscular endurance were 2.5–3 times more likely to pass their math or reading exams and girls were approximately 2–4 times as likely to meet or exceed reading and math test standards (Acta Paediatrica Vol 102, Issue 8).

It seems that the effect has something to do with the part of the brain known as the hippocampus.  Children with higher levels of fitness have larger hippocampi and  perform better on a relational memory task.  This was shown in a study done in 2010 in the journal Brain Research (2010 Oct 28;1358:172-83) where children ages 9 and 10 had brain MRIs performed.  Hippocampal size was compared between ‘high fitness’ regime children and those with ‘low fitness’ regimes. It was found that aerobic activity actually increased hippocampal size.  This finding may link the effects of exercise on brain function but more studies are still needed.

It is interesting that school systems are minimizing the amount of daily physical activity built into the school day curriculum in order to make more room for academic learning. Some experts feels this is due to financial restrictions and also due to the need for schools to meet the metrics of standardized testing that is happening in elementary and middle schools across North America.  Alas, by reducing or eliminating physical education in schools we may be hurting our childrens’ educational successes despite the extra time in the classroom.

Bottom Line: Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve children’s  academic performance in both reading and math.  Get those kids moving!

Dr. Gillian Brakel MSc MD CCFP